U.S. Navy Waiting for Junta's Permission to Deliver Burma Aid

By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 28, 2008; 3:30 PM

The United States is prepared to step up deliveries of relief supplies to Burma from Navy ships off the coast of the cyclone-ravaged nation but cannot wait much longer for permission from Burma's military rulers, the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific said today.

Adm. Timothy J. Keating, who heads the U.S. Pacific Command, told reporters at the Pentagon that sailors and Marines aboard the USS Essex and three other Navy ships in the Bay of Bengal are "desperate to provide help" but are growing increasingly frustrated by the Burmese junta's refusal to accept aid from U.S. and other foreign naval vessels.

Keating said the ships could remain in position for only a matter of days before they must move on to other missions if they are not allowed to help. He said that he had not heard of a reported proposal to have Burmese vessels come out to the Essex to receive relief supplies, but that "certainly we'd consider that." If the Burmese were to propose such a solution, he said, "I would think we'd look favorably on that."

However, a senior Philippine relief official and political leader, Sen. Richard J. Gordon, said he would be "very surprised if that happened." Gordon, chairman of the Philippine National Red Cross, headed that nation's delegation to an international pledging conference held Sunday in Rangoon.

Burmese authorities made clear at the conference that they did not want foreign military personnel providing aid, particularly those from Western countries, Gordon said in a telephone interview from Manila.

"They won't let the military in," he said. "They were very emphatic about that."

But Burmese authorities have allowed at least 70 relief flights into Rangoon by U.S. Air Force C-130 cargo planes in the past two weeks, Keating told Pentagon reporters today.

"We're moving five C-130 loads a day," and the flights are continuing, the Pacific Command chief said. So far, U.S. aircraft have flown in 1.4 million pounds of supplies, including material carried on behalf of nongovernmental organizations and United Nations agencies, Keating said.

He said distribution of the supplies is being handled to some degree by private aid groups and to a larger extent by the Burmese military.

"Do I know where they're going? I do not," Keating said. But he added, "We have reasonable confidence, but not 100 percent confidence," that the relief supplies are going to the civilians who most need them. He said he has "no information" that the Burmese military is hoarding high-value gear such as mosquito netting and plastic sheeting needed for shelter.

"There's a certain amount of faith that it's getting downrange" to destitute Burmese in the devastated Irrawaddy Delta region, Keating said. Civilian relief workers who have been to the delta "say some of it is getting there," he said.

Tropical Cyclone Nargis hammered the low-lying delta area on May 2 and 3 with 120 mph sustained winds, torrential rains and a 12-foot storm surge. The disaster left more than 134,000 people dead or missing, and foreign relief officials have warned that thousands more could die of disease or famine unless the Burmese government opens its doors to more help.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company