Friday, May 9, 2008

US threatens food aid drops on Burma

A US official has suggested the American military could drop unauthorised food aid over Burma, as the White House expressed outrage at the junta's obstruction of international relief efforts in the wake of Cyclone Nargis.

The food drop suggestion was quickly shot down by US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, but four American Navy ships were nonetheless heading towards Burma and US helicopters and air force cargo planes loaded with supplies and personnel began arriving in Thailand. The mobilisation came amid growing pressure on the junta to open up Burma to aid, as the UN warned that 1.5 million people had been ``severely affected'' by the cyclone that swept through on Saturday. The storm is feared to have killed 100,000 people, but the US Government believes existing stocks of relief supplies in Burma might be enough for only about 10,000 people. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice phoned her Chinese counterpart to ask Beijing to persuade Burma to accept international aid.

In New York, US envoy to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad said Washington was "outraged" by the Burmese Government's delays in allowing relief workers and aid shipments.
. “We are shocked by the behaviour of the Government. It should be a no brainer to accept the offer made by the international community,” he said.

Mr Gates also spoke out forcefully, saying the Pentagon was preparing the same kind of assistance it provided after other disasters in the region, including the 2004 Asian tsunami and the 2005 Pakistan earthquake.

"There is an opportunity here to save a lot of lives and we are fully prepared to help and to help right away, and it would be a tragedy if these assets - if people didn't take advantage of them," Mr Gates said. “We are on the cusp of a second wave of tragedy . . . It’s a race against time,” Australia’s Tim Costello, chief executive of the charity World Vision, said from Rangoon. “The urgency is great. The level of suffering is enormous.” Aid was arriving “in a trickle but it needs to be a flood because lives are hanging in the balance”.

Mr Costello said helicopters were the only way to get the supplies needed to avert an epidemic of malaria, dysentry and cholera but the Burmese military did not have enough. The US and Burma have long been estranged. President George W. Bush imposed a new round of sanctions on the country's military leaders just last week to pressure them on human rights and political reform.

Thailand’s Prime Minister has offered to negotiatate on Washington’s behalf, but the regime is refusing to accept US assistance. It asked Washington only for satellite photographs of the devastated area. In the meantime, the Pentagon moved aircraft and ships toward Burma to be ready should aid be allowed to commence.

Four ships, including the destroyer USS Mustin and the three-vessel Essex Expeditionary Strike Force, would be off the coast in about five days, carrying about 1800 Marines. The Pentagon has moved many of the 23 helicopters on board the USS Essex, which has been participating in a multinational humanitarian exercise in the region, to a staging area in Thailand where they are waiting permission to enter Burma. Three giant C-130 cargo planes and a C-17 loaded with relief supplies are also waiting there.

A week after the cyclone the first international aid flights were allowed into Burma yesterday. Four UN planes carrying 40 tons of high-energy food and other supplies landed in Rangoon, and a Red Cross plane arrived from Kuala Lumpa carrying shelter kits for 2000 people.
But other relief flights were still awaiting permission to fly in, scores of disaster experts were struggling to get visas and two of a four-strong UN disaster assessment team were turned back at Rangoon. “This is an unacceptable situation,” said Sir John Holmes, the UN Humanitarian co-ordinator.

The regime is letting in planes and ships from countries such as Thailand, Singapore and Bangladesh that it trusts, but remains deeply suspicious of aid from western nations.

It is allowing free access to the disaster areas to nongovernmental organisations already in Burma, Mr Costello said. The problem, he added, was that the NGOs already working in Burma were focused primarily on development, not disaster relief.

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