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US flies cyclone aid to 'outpost of tyranny' PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, 13 May 2008

REUTERS, YANGON - The first U.S. military aid flight left Thailand on Monday for Myanmar, an "outpost of tyranny" according to Washington, as relief supplies continued to dribble into the reclusive state nine days after a devastating cyclone.

The C-130 transport plane that left the Vietnam War-era U-Tapao airbase was carrying water, mosquito nets and blankets.

U.S. aid officials hope it will pave the way for much larger American operations in the army-ruled former Burma.

"This is Burma's hour of need and the need is urgent," U.S. Agency for International Development administrator Henrietta Fore said before boarding the plane with a Thai-U.S. delegation for the short flight to the cyclone-hit city of Yangon.

Admiral Timothy Keating, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, is also on the flight, which is landing in the midst of a massive humanitarian disaster that could get much worse unless the military government approves a huge international aid effort within days.

Agencies say deliveries to more than a million increasingly desperate cyclone victims have been minimal.

Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said on Sunday that three cargo planes carrying medical material and other supplies from Europe were scheduled to arrive in the former Burma on Monday.

"It has been very difficult to provide highly needed supplies for the heavily affected population in Myanmar," MSF said.

"In the areas where we have been, we haven't seen any aid being delivered so far, so the amount that has reached people in the areas where we are had been minimal."

MSF had a large presence in Myanmar before the cyclone. Aid agencies that did not are having even greater difficulties.

220,000 REPORTED MISSING

While the reclusive junta is accepting aid from the outside world, including the United Nations, it is not fast-tracking visas for foreign logistics teams, who are getting increasingly frustrated with the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok.

"They say they will call, but it's always wait, wait, wait," Pierre Fouillant of French disaster agency Comite de Secours Internationaux told Reuters after being turned away.

"I've never seen delays like this, never," said Fouillant. "It's a crime against humanity. It should be against the law. It's like they are taking a gun and shooting their own people."

In its latest assessment, the U.N. humanitarian agency said on Sunday that between 1.2 million and 1.9 million people were struggling to survive in the aftermath of the storm.

"Given the gravity of the situation including the lack of food and water, some partners have reported fears for security, and violent behavior in the most severely afflicted areas," the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said.

It said "the number of deaths could range from 63,290 to 101,682, and 220,000 people are reported to be missing", and that "acute environmental issues" posed a threat to life and health.

"Unless there is a massive and fast infusion of aid, experts and supplies into the hardest-hit areas, there's going to be a tragedy on an unimaginable scale," said Greg Beck of the International Rescue Committee.

In the delta town of Labutta, where 80 percent of homes were destroyed, authorities were providing one cup of rice per family per day, a European Commission aid official told Reuters.

In a blow to the stumbling relief effort, a boat carrying some of the first aid to survivors sank, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said.

The boat was believed to have hit a submerged tree in the Irrawaddy delta. The Sunday accident highlighted the enormous logistical difficulties of delivering aid, with roads washed away and much of the delta turned to swamp.

Myanmar raised the death toll on Sunday to 28,458 dead and 33,416 missing from the storm on the night of May 2 and early on May 3. Most of the victims were killed by the 12-foot (3.5 meter) wall of sea-water that hit the delta along with the Category 4 cyclone's 190 kph (120 mph) winds.

U.N. LEADS AID EFFORT

Australia responded to a U.N. appeal for $187 million in aid by dramatically increasing its contribution to $23.4 million.

Three U.S. Navy ships are steaming toward Myanmar, and a French warship was expected near its waters in the middle of the week with 1,500 tonnes of rice that France said it wants to distribute directly to survivors.

Besides the need for food and water, survivors are at risk from diseases such as cholera and malaria. Compounding the misery, heavy rains are forecast over the delta later this week.

Despite the alarm bells from the international community about the feeble cyclone relief effort, the junta kept its focus on a weekend referendum on a new constitution, part of a "roadmap to democracy" culminating in multi-party elections in 2010.

There is little doubt about the final result on an army-drafted constitution after an intensive propaganda campaign by the junta urging people to vote "Yes".

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