US Airlifts Aid to Myanmar, UN Presses Junta

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) -- The United States delivered its first relief supplies to Myanmar on Monday, as the U.N. urged the reclusive nation to open its doors to foreign experts who can help up to 2 million cyclone victims facing disease and starvation.

Myanmar reported that the official death toll from Cyclone Nargis had risen by nearly 3,500 to 31,938. Nearly 30,000 others remain missing, and the U.N. and others have said the death toll could reach 100,000 or higher.

Britain's opposition leader called for air-dropping aid if Myanmar's military government remains adamant, while U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon criticized the junta's "unacceptably slow response" to helping cyclone victims.

"There is absolutely no more time to lose," Ban said, adding that Myanmar's leaders had not returned his repeated letters and calls seeking greater cooperation with international relief efforts.

The U.S. military C-130 cargo plane, packed with 14 tons of supplies, flew out of the Thai air force base of Utapao and landed in Yangon, capping prolonged negotiations to persuade Myanmar's military government to accept U.S. help.

Several Myanmar Cabinet ministers, military officers and the top U.S. diplomat in Myanmar, Shari Villarosa, greeted the plane.

Government spokesman Ye Htut said the aid, which was transferred to Myanmar army trucks, would be ferried by air force helicopters to the worst-hit Irrawaddy delta later Monday.

At the White House, presidential press secretary Dana Perino said the C-130 flights hopefully were "just the beginning of what will be much needed assistance that we were happy to provide. So we hope it gets to the people as quickly as possible."

Myanmar's government has given permission for two more C-130 flights, planned Wednesday, Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman said.

However, the director of U.S. foreign disaster assistance says there is "massive concern" that U.S. aid will not get to the people who need it. Ky Luu said the U.S. plans to track the supplies, but that it's difficult to determine what will happen to the aid in the tightly controlled, military-led country.

Perino said the United States was prepared to provide an additional $13 million in food and logistical assistance to the United Nations' world food program for distribution to cyclone victims, bringing overall U.S. aid to $16.25 million.

Also Monday, the U.N. refugee agency was able to get two trucks with shelter material for 10,000 victims across the Thai-Myanmar border to Yangon. It is the first U.N. aid convoy to reach the country by land.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said the trucks traveled for two days by road and the truckloads were being handed over to non-governmental organizations for distribution.

Two planes carrying 56 tons of medical and other aid from Europe-based humanitarian groups also arrived in Yangon Monday.

Medecins Sans Frontieres sent a charter plane carrying 34 tons of medical and logistical aid, while Medecins du Monde flew in 22 tons of aid, including emergency first aid kits and medicines to treat malaria and diarrhea.

Though international assistance has started trickling in, the authoritarian government has barred most foreign experts who are experienced in managing humanitarian crises.

Richard Horsey, a spokesman for U.N. humanitarian operations, in Bangkok, Thailand, said clean drinking water, shelter, medical support and food were sorely lacking.

"The authorities of the country need to open up to an international relief effort. There aren't enough boats, trucks, helicopters in the country to run the relief effort of the scale we need," he said. "It's urgent that the authorities do open themselves up."

The government, which wants full control of relief operations, has less than 40 helicopters, most of them small or old. It also has only about 15 transport planes, primarily small jets unable to carry hundreds of tons of supplies.

The junta made a huge concession in letting the U.S. - the fiercest critic of its human rights record - bring in relief.

The U.S. plane carried mosquito nets, blankets and water in an operation dubbed "Joint Task Force Caring Response."

Also on the plane was Adm. Timothy J. Keating, the commander of the U.S. military in the Pacific, who will try to personally negotiate with the junta for a larger U.S. role in providing relief.

U.S. Marine spokesman Lt. Col. Douglas Powell said there are 11,000 service members and four ships in the region for an annual military exercise, Cobra Gold, that could be harnessed to help the mercy mission.

Three U.S. Navy ships in the Bay of Bengal were sailing closer to Myanmar on Monday, ready to aid cyclone victims if they are given permission, Vice Adm. Doug Crowder told reporters in Jakarta, Indonesia.

In Irrawaddy delta, people were surviving in miserable conditions - hundreds cramped in monasteries with little access to food. Others camped in the open, drinking dirty water contaminated by human feces or dead bodies and animal carcasses.

"The lives of thousands of cyclone survivors are at extreme risk," aid group World Vision said. "Displaced people are living in appalling conditions in makeshift shelters and camps where overcrowding and unsanitary conditions are prevalent."

Children - many of them orphans - are suffering from fever, diarrhea and respiratory infections, it said.

Heavy rains were forecast this week, which would further hinder aid delivery, even though it could be the only source of drinking water.

Britain's opposition Conservative party leader David Cameron suggested Monday that aid should be air-dropped into Myanmar if the junta does not provide access soon.

"The sands of time are running out," he told BBC Radio. "In the end what matters is getting aid through to people and feeding them and stopping them from dying."

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's office acknowledged all options should be considered, but said any move to begin air-dropping aid is unlikely. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates also said last week that he couldn't imagine dropping aid into Myanmar without consent from the authorities.

Meanwhile, the Oslo-based opposition news network Democratic Voice of Burma called Monday for a U.N. resolution to make sure aid gets to those who need it.

Deputy chief editor Khin Maung Win said "intervention is needed so that people can get their aid." He said the Security Council should consider a resolution along the lines of a French proposal last week.

The French raised the possibility of U.N. authorization to enter Myanmar and deliver aid without waiting for approval from the military in Yangon.

Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej sent a letter to his Myanmar counterpart Monday, urging the junta to issue more visas. But the junta replied that visas for foreigners would be considered on a case-by-case basis, Thai government spokesman Wichianchote Sukchotrate said.

Many people have complained that they are getting rotting rice and that soldiers are keeping the best food for themselves.

"The government is very controlling," said U Patanyale, the abbot of a monastery in Kyi Bui Khaw village.

"Those who want to give directly to the victims get into trouble. They have to give to the government or do it secretly. They follow international aid trucks everywhere. They don't want others to take credit. That's the Myanmar government," he said.

© 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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