Western Navy Help Unwanted by Myanmar

By: AP
By: AP

BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) -- With their history of xenophobia, no one expected Myanmar's generals to welcome a flotilla of warships trying to help bring relief to millions affected by Cyclone Nargis.

True to form, they didn't.

As a half-dozen military ships from the U.S., France and Britain laden with aid and helicopters capable of reaching hard-hit areas waited offshore, Myanmar said they were not needed or welcome.

Although the junta agreed Friday it would let commercial ships and foreign aid workers help survivors of the May 2-3 cyclone, the military - a major factor in relief after the 2004 tsunami - was forced to sit on the sidelines.

"The strings attached to the relief supplies carried by warships and military helicopters are not acceptable to the Myanmar people," the New Light of Myanmar newspaper, a mouthpiece for the ruling generals, said this week.

It did not say what strings were attached, and U.S. military officials have repeatedly said there were none.

"This is purely a humanitarian mission," said Lt. Col. Douglas Powell, a spokesman for the stalled Operation Caring Response. "We have no ulterior motive other than to assist the Burmese people."

The media report hinted that Myanmar's real fear is that the U.S. would use the disaster as a pretext to invade and take control of the country's oil reserves. U.S. officials flatly deny any such intent.

The junta appears particularly wary about allowing U.S. helicopters into hard-hit areas because that would highlight the American effort to the common people, who have been taught to see the U.S. as a hostile aggressor.

The U.S., along with the British and French, have assembled a huge response force off Myanmar.

The U.S. force is led by the USS Essex, an aircraft-carrier-like flattop ship that carries more than a dozen helicopters, amphibious landing craft and about 1,000 U.S. Marines. The Essex, joined by three other ships, has been waiting almost within sight of the coast.

The French amphibious assault vessel Mistral and the British frigate HMS Westminister were also in the area, ready to respond.

"We are exploring all the options to get aid to the victims," French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Pascale Andreani wrote in an online briefing.

Aboard the Essex, officers said they want to help.

"We intend to stand by with our significant lift and water production capability as long as the government of the United States believes we may have an opportunity to assist the people of Burma in the wake of this natural disaster," said Lt. Denver Applehans.

In the meantime, U.S. military airlifts from Thailand continued, and Myanmar state media reports said they are welcome.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Friday there have been 50 U.S. C-130 transport plane flights into Yangon, carrying more than 485 tons of relief supplies. But they have not been allowed to fly to the delta.

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