Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The U.S. military put people and airplanes into position to work on any relief effort for cyclone

WASHINGTON - The U.S. military put people and airplanes into position to work on any relief effort for cyclone-hit Myanmar, as officials awaited word on whether the Asian nation would accept such American help.

An Air Force C-130 landed in neighboring Thailand and another was on the way, Air Force spokeswoman Megan Orton said Wednesday morning at the Pentagon.

"When they accept, or if they accept — and we know what supplies they need — those planes will be there to transport those," she said.

A rapid deployment unit designed to be the first people inserted into an operation already works out of Thailand and is at the ready as well. "This is just a positioning of the planes and people," Orton said.

Three U.S. officials said they understood it was possible the Myanmar government would only accept money from the United States and want to buy its own aid supplies — or that it would only accept U.S. assistance as part of the broader United Nations effort.

Navy and Marine Corps officials said they were in a holding position, awaiting word on whether they would be needed.

The Navy has three ships participating in an exercise in the Gulf of Thailand that could help in any relief effort — the USS Essex, the USS Juneau and the USS Harper's Ferry.

The Essex is an amphibious assault ship with 23 helicopters aboard, including 19 capable of lifting cargo from ship to shore, as well as more than 1,500 Marines.

One official said that if there is a U.S. relief operation, the Essex group would likely leave some of its assets behind so the multinational exercise can still be held, while moving other equipment forward to help Myanmar.

Because it would take the Essex more than four days to get into position, another official said, the Navy is considering sending some of its helicopters ahead. The aircraft would be able to arrive in a matter of hours, and the Essex could follow, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because that effort was still in the planning stages.

The White House said Tuesday the U.S. will send more than $3 million to help victims of the devastating cyclone in Myanmar, up from an initial emergency contribution of $250,000.

The additional commitment of funds, announced by press secretary Dana Perino, came as Myanmar continued to resist entry for a U.S. disaster assessment team. The Bush administration said permission for such a team to enter the Southeast Asian nation and look at the damage would allow quicker and larger aid contributions.

In the meantime, the decision was made to funnel $3 million more to the disaster-stricken zone. Perino said the money would be allocated by a USAID disaster response team that is currently positioned in Thailand.

The Treasury Department moved to make it easier for relief agencies and religious organizations to provide assistance to cyclone victims by issuing a blanket license for them to receive financial contributions from United States. Under existing U.S. sanctions on Myanmar, such transactions normally require individual licenses.

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