Wednesday, May 21, 2008

State media: Myanmar shuns aid from US warships

YANGON, Myanmar- Myanmar shunned a U.S. proposal for naval ships to deliver aid to cyclone victims on Wednesday, according to state-run media, dimming hopes that the vessels could provide a major boost to relief efforts.The New Light of Myanmar, a mouthpiece for Myanmar's ruling junta, said that such assistance "comes with strings attached," citing fears that Washington wants to overthrow the country's government and seize its oil.The United States, as well as France and Great Britain, have naval vessels loaded with humanitarian supplies off the Myanmar coast, and had been waiting for a green light to deliver them. The article did not say whether the French and British supplies would be allowed.The state media report said that other U.S. aid airlifted into the country was welcome, an apparent reference to ongoing relief flights, which land in the country about five times a day. American officials are required to hand the aid to Myanmar authorities upon landing in Yangon, from which it is a difficult journey to the Irrawaddy delta.The four U.S. warships were seen as a major potential boost for the relief effort with the capacity to deliver supplies to inaccessible areas of the delta, with 14 helicopters, two landing craft vessels, two high-tech amphibious hovercraft and about 1,000 U.S. Marines.The report gave no explanation why the regime was willing to accept aid flown on U.S. planes, with U.S. military personnel on board, but would not allow the warships and helicopters to deliver relief supplies.Myanmar's xenophobic leaders have long feared an invasion by the United States, a concern that some analysts believe prompted the junta's abrupt decision in 2005 to move the country's capital from Yangon to the remote city of Naypyitaw, which is equipped with bunkers.Despite Wednesday's announcement, the junta appeared to be slowly relenting to foreign pressure to accept more outside help for an estimated 2.5 million survivors faced with hunger, loss of their homes and potential outbreaks of deadly diseases.U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who was headed to Myanmar, said the world body had received permission from the junta to use nine helicopters to carry aid to stranded victims."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 on Tuesday before departing for Southeast Asia. His announcement was not immediately confirmed by officials in Myanmar."I believe further similar moves will follow, including expediting the visas of (foreign) relief workers seeking to enter the country," Ban said, warning that relief efforts to save survivors of the May 2-3 Cyclone Nargis had reached a "critical moment.""We have a functioning relief program in place but so far have been able to reach only 25 percent of Myanmar's people in need," he said.So far, the few foreign aid workers allowed inside the country have been banned from the areas of the worst devastation in the low-lying Irrawaddy delta.The official death toll from Cyclone Nargis was over 78,000 with 56,000 more people missing.Ban was expected to arrive in Bangkok, the capital of neighboring Thailand, on Wednesday and to fly on to Yangon on Thursday. In Myanmar, he was expected to visit areas devastated by the cyclone and to talk with officials and aid workers.He was also scheduled to attend a meeting of aid donors in Yangon on Sunday. Myanmar, one of the world's poorest nations, claims losses from the disaster exceeded $10 billion.At U.N. headquarters, Ban welcomed the junta's "recent flexibility" in saying it will allow relief workers from the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations _ of which Myanmar is a member _ to begin distributing aid.

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