YANGON, Myanmar — The United Nations has received permission from Myanmar to use nine helicopters to ferry relief supplies to stranded victims of Cyclone Nargis, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon said Tuesday as he warned that relief efforts are at a "critical moment."
"We have received government permission to operate nine WFP (World Food Program) helicopters, which will allow us to reach areas that have so far been largely inaccessible," Ban told reporters in New York before departing on a trip to Myanmar.
His announcement was not immediately confirmed by officials of Myanmar's military government.
John Holmes, the U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, was in Myanmar seeking to persuade the junta to let in more international assistance and paving the way for Ban's visit, which begins Thursday.
Holmes said he told Myanmar's prime minister, Lt. Gen. Thein Sein, that the United Nations wants to support aid efforts, "as we would do in any other country in any disaster of this scale, where clearly the size of the tragedy outweighs the capacity of any country to deal with it by itself."
The official death toll stood at about 78,000, with 56,000 more people missing. Conditions in the low-lying Irrawaddy River delta remained precarious, with survivors facing disease, malnutrition and exposure to the elements.
The U.S. military has several helicopters on standby on a warship off the Myanmar coast and in neighboring Thailand.
The United States is flying supplies in from Thailand on C-130 cargo aircraft, at a rate of about five flights a day. But the planes go to Myanmar's biggest city, Yangon, from which it is a difficult journey to the Irrawaddy delta.