Myanmar denies cyclone aid is being taxed

YANGON, Myanmar The state-owned New Light of Myanmar newspaper said foreign radio broadcasts had wrongly accused the government of deducting the tax from donations deposited in the Myanmar Foreign Trade Bank.

The state bank, which usually deducts 10 percent from all foreign currency deposits, has opened special accounts to accept U.S. dollars, euros and Singapore dollars from which all donations would be fully channeled to cyclone survivors, the newspaper said.

Organizations and individuals who have misused relief funds sent from abroad will be punished, it said.

The United Nations estimates Cyclone Nargis affected 2.4 million people and that more than 1 million of them, mostly in the hardest-hit Irrawaddy delta, still need help. The cyclone, which struck May 2-3, killed more than 78,000, according to the government.

In separate reports, state media said there have been no outbreaks of contagious diseases in storm-hit areas and that 911 staffers from international aid organizations and neighboring countries were issued visas to enter the country between May 5 and June 5.

The junta has been criticized for dragging its feet on issuing visas and, until recently, not allowing foreign aid workers into the Irrawaddy delta, where most of the victims are.

Briefing foreign aid agencies in Yangon on Tuesday, the government stressed that all aid deliveries had to be coordinated with Myanmar authorities at both the central and local levels.

On Tuesday, a major operation was launched to assess the needs of storm survivors in a sign the junta is finally cooperating in international aid efforts.

Some 250 experts from the U.N., the government and Southeast Asian nations headed into the Irrawaddy delta Tuesday by truck, boat and helicopter for a village-by-village survey, the U.N. said.

Over the next 10 days, they will determine how much food, clean water and temporary shelter the survivors require, along with the cost of rebuilding houses and schools and reviving the agriculture-based economy.

"It has taken quite a long time, but this shows the government is on board by its commitment to facilitate the relief operation and the scaling up that people are asking for," said Amanda Pitt, a U.N. spokeswoman in Bangkok, Thailand.

However, Tuesday's positive development was a stark contrast to reports that 18 cyclone victims -- women and children -- on their way to the U.N. office to plead for help were arrested in Yangon.

Authorities detained the 18 as they walked to the U.N. offices to complain about not receiving any government assistance, according to a government official who refused to be identified for fear of retaliation by the leadership.

The group, from Dagon township on the outskirts of Yangon, was bundled into a waiting police car and remained in detention, witnesses said.

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