Global

Junta slams citizens over cyclone reports

By Aung Hla Tun

YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar's junta attacked "unscrupulous"citizens and foreign media on Friday for presenting a falsepicture of the devastation left by Cyclone Nargis as expertsbegan mapping the extent of the disaster.

The New Light of Myanmar, the mouthpiece of the rulinggenerals, said people had been selling video footage "ofinvented stories" to foreign news organisations which tarnishedthe country's image.

"The people who are in touch with the situation feel thatthe despicable and inhumane acts by local and foreignanti-government groups and self-centred persons and theirexploiting of the storm victims are absolutely obnoxious," thenewspaper said.

Bootleg copies of DVDs showing the devastation in thehardest-hit Irrawaddy delta have been snapped up on the streetsof the former capital Yangon and smuggled out of the country.

Police detained famous activist/comedian Zarganar onWednesday night and seized his computer, several banned filmsand records of the cyclone damage.

Newspaper, television and radio are tightly controlled bythe military government, which also severely restrictsinternational media access to the former Burma.

The New Light of Myanmar accused foreign media of running"groundless news stories with the intention of tarnishing theimage of Myanmar and misleading the international communityinto believing that cyclone victims do not receive anyassistance."

The first major criticism of foreign media coverage of thedisaster followed a recent report on a satellite televisionnetwork of bootleg video footage being sold at a Yangon market.

On Friday, police swooped on satellite television suppliersin Yangon, ordering them not to sell or install new receiverdishes.

Many such dishes, which provided one of the few conduitsinto the isolated country, were destroyed in the cyclone.

"Thanks to a tip-off given by an official, we were able tohide the things we had on sale," said one dealer.

In January, the government hiked the annual licence feefrom around $6 to $909 (3 pounds to 463.50 pounds) in anapparent bid to curtail satellite access.

RIGHTS PROBE DEMANDED

In Geneva, the United Nations human rights expert forMyanmar urged the junta to investigate reports its soldiersshot dead at least 36 prison inmates during unrest in thecountry's most infamous prison at the height of the May 2storm.

Tomas Ojea Quintana, who reports to the U.N. Human RightsCouncil, also called for the free flow of aid to the delta.

Dozens of delta villages, some visited by Reuters, have yetto receive any relief assistance since the May 2 cyclone sweptover the area and Yangon, leaving 134,000 dead or missing and2.4 million people in desperate need of help.

The newspaper report accused media organisations and localpeople of "luring naive storm victims" with leading questionson their living conditions a week after the junta beganevicting thousands of people from state-run camps out ofapparent fear the tented villages could become permanent.

A team of 200 international disaster and aid experts fannedout across the delta to assess the extent of the cyclonedestruction and gauge whether farmers would be able to plantcrucial monsoon rice crops by the end of July.

"They have begun looking at areas today and will reportback in the middle of next month," a spokeswoman for theASEAN-UN "Emergency Rapid Assessment Team" told Reuters.

Plans to accelerate the delivery of aid to the delta weredelayed on Friday when poor weather grounded seven U.N. WorldFood Programme helicopters in neighbouring Thailand.

The helicopters, part of a fleet of 10 approved by thejunta two weeks ago, are urgently needed by relief workers, butonly one has so far arrived in Yangon.

A top U.S. military commander said on Friday the UnitedStates continued to extend its offer to help with the deliveryof aid to the delta, but the regime had not replied so far.

Lt. Gen. John Goodman, commander of the joint task forceCaring Response, said 22 heavy-lift helicopters were on standbyin Thailand if Myanmar's generals gave the green light.

"We offered them to ride on our helicopters, to prescriberoutes. I did everything that I thought was diplomatically andlogically feasible to find a way for them to say yes," he toldReuters after his talks with a Myanmar general on Monday.

(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in GENEVA andDarren Schuettler in BANGKOK; Writing by Rob Taylor; Editing byJerry Norton)

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