YANGON, Myanmar - U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon sought to persuade Myanmar's ruling generals Thursday to let in a torrent of foreign assistance for cyclone victims rather than the current trickle.
"The United Nations and all the international community stand ready to help to overcome the tragedy," Ban said shortly after arriving in the country. "The main purpose of my being here is to demonstrate my solidarity."
By the junta's count, at least 78,000 people are dead and 56,000 missing from Cyclone Nargis, which swept through the country's heartland on May 2-3.
As Ban began his visit, foreign aid agencies urged the need to quickly reach survivors suffering from disease, hunger and lack of shelter.
"There needs to be more equipment. There needs to be more flights coming in. There needs to more boats out there to reach remote areas," said Jemilah Mahmood, of the aid agency Mercy Malaysia in Bangkok.
Ban met for nearly 1 1/2 hours with Prime Minister Thein Sein as well as with international aid agencies in Yangon, Myanmar's largest city, and was to fly by helicopter later in the day to the hardest-hit Irrawaddy delta.
Before talks began, the secretary-general visited Yangon's Shwedagon pagoda, regarded as the spiritual heart of the country.
"I praise the will, resilience and the courage of the people of Myanmar. I bring a message of hope for the people of Myanmar," he said as bells chimed at the tranquil, soaring shrine.
Following local tradition, Ban removed his shoes and socks and padded barefoot around the pagoda, handing the shrine's trustees a donation for cyclone victims.
With Foreign Minister Nyan Win present, Ban said, "I hope your people and government will closely coordinate so that the flow of aid and aid workers' activities can be carried out in a more systematic way."
Security for the secretary-general's visit was heavy, with dozens of armed riot police dotting the road from the airport into the city.
U.N. official Dan Baker said junta leader Senior Gen. Than Shwe would meet Friday with Ban at Naypyitaw, the capital built by the military in a remote area of central Myanmar. Ban said earlier that Than Shwe had refused to take his telephone calls and failed to respond to two letters.
Among a number of Yangon citizens interviewed, few were optimistic about results from Ban's visit.
"I doubt he could do much. The U.N. has no power here," said Aung Myint Oe, a service industry worker.
Another local resident, Kyaw Htun Htun, a businessman, predicted that "they (the generals) won't care what the U.N. says."
But some thought just the visit of Ban, the first secretary-general ever to visit Myanmar in an official capacity, could make a difference.
"His presence as a senior U.N. official is significant. It means there is enough concern in the international community to raise this to that level. Open up all the channels to allow international assistance to the country. That should be his message," said Richard Rumsey, a senior staffer of the aid agency World Vision in Thailand.
The U.N. says up to 2.5 million cyclone survivors face hunger, homelessness and potential outbreaks of deadly diseases, especially in the low-lying delta. But so far only about 25 percent of those in need have been reached by aid.
Myanmar slowly geared up to receive material assistance for the victims, and is still reluctant to accept more than a handful of experienced foreign rescue and disaster relief workers.
Following Ban into the delta will be representatives of 29 nations, including Japan, Singapore and Thailand, who have been invited to Myanmar by the regime. The group, which includes government officials, aid officials and private-sector donors, will visit the region Friday.
Ban said Tuesday that the U.N. had finally received permission from the junta to use nine World Food Program helicopters to carry aid to stranded victims in inaccessible areas. WFP officials in Bangkok confirmed that 10 flights would be allowed beginning Thursday.
But a state-controlled newspaper said Wednesday that U.S. helicopters and naval ships were not welcome to join the relief effort.
The United States, as well as France and Great Britain, have naval vessels loaded with humanitarian supplies - and the means to deliver them - off Myanmar's coast, awaiting a green light to deliver them.
The New Light of Myanmar, a mouthpiece for the junta, said accepting military-linked assistance "comes with strings attached" that are "not acceptable to the people of Myanmar." It hinted at fears of an American invasion aimed at grabbing the country's oil reserves. The article did not say whether French and British supplies would be allowed.
The regime has been letting U.S. military C-130 cargo planes fly in relief goods.
European Union nations have warned that Myanmar's junta could be committing a crime against humanity by blocking aid.