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EU Calls on Burma to Give Unfettered Access to Cyclone Victims

EU development ministers on Tuesday called on the Burmese military government to stop preventing international aid from arriving in the country, but fell short of following a more drastic proposal.

Burmese soldiers unload water bottles from the first US aid plane

Aid has been trickling in, but much more is needed to prevent epidemies

Following an emergency meeting in Brussels on Tuesday, May 13, the European Union's development ministers urged the military junta of Myanmar, as Burma is now known, to give "free and unfettered access to international humanitarian experts, including the expeditious delivery of visa and travel permits."

They also called on the military junta "to take urgent action to facilitate the flow of aid to people in desperate need, who should benefit in full from the relief offered by the international community."

According to estimates, up to 100,000 people were killed by cyclone Nargis, which devastated the Asian country on May 2. Up to 1.9 million people, who survived the disaster, are now facing hunger and threatened by the outbreak of epidemics unless help arrives soon.

The worst is yet to come

Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul

Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul worries that the situation will escalate

"We simply cannot stand by and watch as even more people die after the dreadful catastrophe which has already claimed tens of thousands of victims," German Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul told reporters.

"After the 2004 tsunami, we were able to prevent further deaths, but now there is a danger that tens of thousands more people could die because we don't have access to them," she added.

The European Union has so far released 2 million euros ($3 million) in aid and could bring that number to more than 30 million euros if the Burmese leadership eases its restrictions on letting helpers inside the country.

Crime against humanity?

The junta's resistance provoked strong statements from Europeans on Tuesday.

"If the junta puts serious obstacles in the way of this aid, we are facing a case which could be similar to a crime against humanity," Spain's minister for EU affairs, Diego Lopez Garrido, said.

The EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, said that "we have to use all the means to help those people."

Aid by force

Children in Burma with soup on their plates

Should the world bypass the junta to keep food on their plates?

France's junior minister for human rights, Rama Yade, added that her country, as well as Germany and Britain, were ready to deliver aid without the Burmese government's consent.

"We have called for the 'responsibility to protect' to be applied in the case of Burma," she said, referring to a 2005 UN principle that's meant to protect people if their own government fails to do so, even if this means a breach of sovereignty.

Yama said that there was no consensus among the EU's 27 member states on invoking the principle.

Cautious optimism

Germany's development minister meanwhile expressed some cautious optimism.

"The junta is little by little, in a hesitant way, giving ground, but it's crucial to be able to get to people," she said. "Every hour, every day, counts."

EU Development Aid Commissioner Louis Michel was headed for Burma on a "strictly humanitarian" mission after the meeting after the regime had granted him a visa to enter the country. He said he would try to convince junta leaders to allow international aid and aid workers unfettered access to the crisis-hit people of the flooded Irrawaddy delta region.

However "here and now, my mission's chances of success are slight," he told AFP news service.

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