Thursday, May 8, 2008

America voices anger at junta’s refusal to accept offers of aid

Martin Fletcher and Joanna Sugden

The Bush Administration expressed outrage at Burma’s obstruction of international relief efforts yesterday, with one senior official even suggesting that the US military drop food aid over parts of the country without the regime’s permission.

That suggestion was quickly shot down by Robert Gates, the US Defence Secretary, but the Administration made no secret of its anger. “We are shocked by the behaviour of the Government. It should be a no brainer to accept the offer made by the international community,” Zalmay Khalil-zad, US Ambassador to the United Nations, declared as the UN announced that 1.5 million Burmese were now in desperate need of help.

“We are on the cusp of a second wave of tragedy . . . It’s a race against time,” Tim Costello, chief executive of the charity World Vision, said from Rangoon. “The urgency is great. The level of suffering is enormous.” Aid was arriving “in a trickle but it needs to be a flood because lives are hanging in the balance”.

Mr Costello said helicopters were the only way to get the supplies needed to avert an epidemic of malaria, dysentry and cholera but the Burmese military did not have enough.

The Pentagon has moved many of the 23 helicopters on board the USS Essex, which has been participating in a multinational humanitarian exercise in the region, to a staging area in Thailand where they are waiting permission to enter Burma. Three giant C-130 cargo planes and a C-17 loaded with relief supplies are also waiting there, and Washington is prepared to send four Navy ships laden with desperately needed provisions.

Thailand’s prime minister has offered to negotiatate on Washington’s behalf, but the regime is refusing to accept US assistance. It asked Washington only for satellite photographs of the devastated area.

A week after the cyclone the first international aid flights were allowed into Burma yesterday. Four UN planes carrying 40 tons of high-ener-gy food and other supplies landed in Rangoon, and a Red Cross plane arrived from Kuala Lumpa carrying shelter kits for 2,000 people.

But other relief flights were still awaiting permission to fly in, scores of disaster experts were struggling to get visas and two of a four-strong UN disaster assessment team were turned back at Rangoon. “This is an unacceptable situation,” Sir John Holmes, the UN Humanitarian co-ordinator, said.

Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General, urged the regime to postpone Saturday’s constitutional referendum – one reason it is reluctant to admit outsiders – so it could focus all its resources on the relief effort. The British, French and German foreign ministers demanded the regime lift all restrictions on international relief. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations urged it to work with the international aid community “before it’s too late”. Even China, Burma’s closest ally, called on the regime to cooperate with aid efforts.

The regime is letting in planes and ships from countries such as Thailand, Singapore and Bangladesh that it trusts, but remains deeply suspicious of aid from western nations.

It is allowing free access to the disaster areas to nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) already in Burma, Mr Costello said. The problem, he added, was that the NGOs already working in Burma were focused primarily on development, not disaster relief.

The British Disaster Emergency Committee, representing 13 NGOs, launched an appeal for donations yesterday. The UN pledged $10 million in immediate aid, and many governments have offered money and supplies. British charities appear better placed than many to respond. CARE International has 500 employees in Burma, almost all Burmese, distributing food and water in two of the worst-hit districts. Save the Children has more than 500 in Burma and has managed to get aid to 60,000 people.

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