Saturday, May 17, 2008

French navy ship near Myanmar with aid

YANGON, Myanmar - A French navy ship carrying 1,000 tons of food idled near Myanmar's coast Saturday, awaiting permission from the uncooperative ruling military regime to dock in the cyclone-devastated Irrawaddy delta.

The junta took a group of foreign diplomats on a tour of the worst-hit Irrawaddy delta on Saturday, but the top U.S. envoy in the country dismissed the trip as "a show" designed to impress the world.

State media announced Friday that the death toll from Cyclone Nargis had nearly doubled to 78,000 with about 56,000 missing. Aid groups say the death toll alone is probably about 128,000, with many more deaths possible from disease and starvation unless help gets quickly to some 2.5 million survivors of the May 2-3 disaster.

Despite having few means to deliver aid quickly and efficiently, the isolationist government insists it does not want international aid groups to manage relief operations in the desperately poor country also known as Burma.

The junta says all such aid must be delivered to the government for distribution and it has barred foreigners from leaving Yangon, putting up a security cordon around the country's main city.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown told the British Broadcasting Corp. in an interview broadcast Saturday that a natural disaster "is being made into a man-made catastrophe by the negligence, the neglect and the inhuman treatment of the Burmese people by a regime that is failing to act and to allow the international community to do what it wants to do."

A French government statement said navy ship Le Mistral was waiting some 13 miles outside Myanmar's territorial waters, hoping to go in and unload its cargo of 1,000 tons of food — enough to feed 100,000 people for 15 days. The aid also includes shelters for 15,000 people, the statement said.

While France is negotiating with Myanmar on delivering the aid, the ship is treading water, said Le Mistral's commander, Rear Adm. Alain Hinden.

"We are patrolling in place while waiting for the authorization," Hinden told The Associated Press in Bangkok in a telephone interview from the ship. "The ship itself can stay here for days or weeks" if needed, he said.

France's U.N. Ambassador Jean-Maurice Ripert warned Friday that the government's refusal to allow aid to be delivered to people "could lead to a true crime against humanity."

In Yangon, news of the approach of the French ship created an excited buzz among residents who were phoning each other to ask how far the ship was and when it would arrive.

The excitement reflected the frustrations felt by many of Myanmar's people, who have watched their government reject international help every day ignoring pleas by the United Nations, foreign governments and aid agencies.

In an effort to showcase its relief efforts, the junta flew 60 diplomats and U.N. officials in helicopters to three different places in Irrawaddy where camps, aid and survivors were put on display, diplomats said.

"It was a show. That's what they wanted us to see," Shari Villarosa, the top U.S. diplomat in Myanmar, told the AP in Bangkok by telephone, after returning to Yangon.

She did not elaborate but an Asian diplomat told the AP separately that the government wanted to show them that "everything is organized and under control."

However, "the underlying message is they welcome international assistance but there is no need for foreign personnel," said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

He said the diplomats visited a hospital and met a woman who gave birth after the cyclone. The child is now named Nargis, he said.

Another diplomat said authorities told them that relief work is finished and they are moving toward reconstruction and rebuilding.

But reports by aid groups on the ground tell a different story.

They say survivors are crammed in makeshift refugee camps, schools and monasteries, living on food donations from private citizens who are ferrying rice, noodles, biscuits and other aid material in their cars or trucks.

Torrential monsoon rains have lashed the delta for the last two days, further slowing relief operations.

Lack of clean water is becoming a big problem, with the Red Cross warning it could lead to many deaths in coming days.

The junta has accepted Thai and Indian medical teams, which arrived in Yangon Saturday. The 32-member Thai team was expected to travel to the delta in the coming days, said Dr. Surachet Satitniramai, director of Thailand's National Medical Emergency Services Institute.

The Indian team consists of 50 doctors and paramedics from the Army Medical Corp., said Indian Air Force spokesman Wing Cmdr. Manish Gandhi. He could not immediately say if they would be allowed to go to Irrawaddy.

John Holmes, U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, was going to Myanmar on Sunday to try to convince junta leaders to grant more access to U.N. relief workers and to massively scale up aid efforts.

The U.S. military flew four more flights of emergency supplies into Yangon on Friday, raising its total to 17 since Monday. Two of the flights were filled with aid provided by the Thai government. India also was readying flights.

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