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First U.S. relief plane lands in Myanmar

Officials on board urge the government to allow an international mission to help cyclone victims.

May 13, 2008|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

BANGKOK, THAILAND — A top U.S. admiral met the senior Myanmar naval officer on an airport tarmac in Yangon on Monday, urging him to open the country to an expanded international humanitarian mission that could reach hundreds of thousands of hungry and homeless cyclone victims.

Adm. Timothy J. Keating, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, accompanied supplies of water, blankets and mosquito nets to Myanmar's main city on the first Air Force relief flight allowed to land in the country since the May 4 disaster. He said later that he had pressed the case for greater access to Vice Adm. Soe Thein, commander in chief of Myanmar's navy, in the highest-level meeting between the militaries in many years.

But Myanmar's long-ruling military government gave no indication that it was prepared to loosen restrictions on foreign aid workers. U.S. officials described the meeting as "cordial," and state-run TV Myanmar gave high prominence to coverage of the extraordinary visit. A 10-minute segment showed the two admirals and other officials examining maps of the battered Irrawaddy River delta, and smiling in front of boxes of aid prominently marked as American.

During the roughly two hours on the ground, Keating told his counterpart that the U.S. could make available 4,000 Marines, six C-130 transport planes and several helicopters to help distribute aid. The regime has said it will accept foreign supplies, but it told the visiting Americans that its own armed forces would handle almost all the distribution.

Many villages in the low-lying south were unreachable by road even before last week's storm left huge stretches of the delta under water, making any full-scale relief operation heavily dependent on airlifts. Aid workers say the regime has devoted just seven of its own helicopters to the relief operation.

TV Myanmar also showed the nation's soldiers carrying temporary housing materials and bags of food aid off planes from India and Malaysia, as well as officers dropping bottles of water out of light aircraft. It showed boxes of aid from China, and neat rows of blue tents on dry ground.

There were no pictures of the thousands of Cyclone Nargis survivors reported by aid agencies to be on the move in search of shelter, nor of decomposing bodies widely spotted floating in flooded estuaries.

The government continued to sparingly issue entry visas to international relief workers, approving just 34 of 100 requests even as it raised its official death toll to 31,938. The United Nations says that between 62,000 and 100,000 people are dead or missing in the nation, also known as Burma.

"We have a broad array of personnel and equipment, and we are ready to respond as soon as the Burmese give us permission," Keating said after his return to Bangkok, the Thai capital. "We did not get that permission today," he said, adding that government officials promised only to "take it under consideration."

Myanmar's tepid response threatens to turn a natural disaster into a man-made catastrophe. Aid officials warn that shortages of food and drinking water, as well as the failure to cremate bodies, are increasing the likelihood that disease will spread. About 1.5 million people in the southern delta are in peril, aid organizations warn.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed "deep concern and immense frustration" Monday at Myanmar's response to the disaster.

"We are at a critical point," Ban said in New York. "Unless more aid gets into the country -- very quickly -- we face an outbreak of infections that could dwarf today's crisis. I therefore call, in the most strenuous terms, on the government of Myanmar to put its people's lives first."

Two more U.S. relief flights were scheduled to fly to Yangon, also known as Rangoon, today, but the junta has declined an American offer to set up a constant "air bridge" of aid. Several other countries with friendlier ties to the regime, such as Thailand, have also pressed the case for a much bigger international operation.

Critics say the regime remains wary citizens will interpret a large-scale foreign presence as a sign its armed forces can't handle the disaster. The government is also suspicious of foreign aid workers' motives.

"The regime is very proud and worries about losing face if they let foreign aid workers in," said Win Min, a Burmese exile who teaches at Chiang Mai University in Thailand.

Win Min said the generals would be alarmed at the prospect of thousands of foreigners flying around the country, showing up in villages and interacting with citizens. "The generals think aid workers are intelligence agents," he said.

The regime did appear to set aside long-standing enmity by allowing the Air Force C-130 to land. The U.S. has been one of the military dictatorship's sharpest critics, having imposed economic sanctions on Myanmar because of human rights violations. For its part, the government has accused the U.S. of plotting with dissidents to overthrow it.

U.S. officials on the plane said their objective was to convince the regime that calls for a broader humanitarian effort were a sincere attempt to help.

"This was a good first step," said Henrietta Fore, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, who accompanied the aid delivery. "They were very clear that they could use help from outside."

The question is how quickly relief can reach victims, who have been struggling for nine days now.

During a weekend boat trip through the disaster zone, the local organizer of a volunteer relief operation reported numerous survivors with life-threatening injuries. Bodies were floating in the river near the town of Bogalay as women washed clothes nearby.

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bruce.wallace@latimes.com

A Times staff writer in Yangon and staff writer Maggie Farley at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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