Tuesday, 20 May 2008

US Aid at Half Capacity

The Irrawaddy News

Filled with relief supplies for Burma's cyclone survivors, an American C-130 aircraft prepared for take-off from Thailand at around 10:30 a.m. On Sunday. A few minutes later, the pilot was ordered to cut the engine.

"The flights to Burma have been postponed until tomorrow,” Lt-Col Douglas Powell, a public affairs officer and spokesman for the relief mission, told The Irrawaddy at Utapao Airport in central Thailand. "We didn’t get clearance today,” he said, clearly disappointed.

However, at 12: 15 p.m., US officials suddenly and unexpectedly got the green light to land at Rangoon International Airport. Five C-130s—laden with several tons of drinking water, blankets, mosquito nets and first aid kits—took off immediately.

The smile returned to Lt-Col Powell's face as the planes took off. Burmese air traffic control, he said, would allow five flights in today after all. C-130 flights to Burma, he said, were allowed in “on a case-by-case basis.”

As of Monday, 31 US C-130s had landed in Rangoon with humanitarian aid for cyclone survivors.

The American officer, an Iraqi War veteran, said that, usually, landing permission was only granted in the middle of the night or in the early morning. However, he said, the Americans are “waiting patiently.”

"We would like to get the permission to start our flights at 7:30 in the morning,” Powell said. "If the Burmese government wanted us to move relief supplies out of Rangoon to another area we would help them with that."

When asked about US warships located near Burmese waters, he responded: "We have 10 CH-47s (Chinook helicopters) and we have a lot of supplies on the ships—mostly water and water purification units."

"We have helicopters, landing craft and amphibious assault vehicles that can go into flooded areas and remote areas," he said. "More importantly, we have helicopters that can carry NGOs to deliver supplies."

To date, the Burmese regime has ignored the American offer.

"We have a much greater capacity than the Burmese authorities will allow us,” Powell said. “We have huge transport planes and large helicopters here for relief work. But the Burmese authorities will only allow in C-130s," he said.

The Us officer stressed that, apart from aircraft, the US army has experience in tackling humanitarian crises in the region, such as when US marines were deployed on humanitarian missions during the 2004 tsunami disaster in Southeast Asia.

"The amount the Burmese authorities are allowing in is not enough," Powell said. “The US can deliver 200,000 lbs (90 tons) of goods to Burma every day, but at present, we are only fulfilling half that amount.”

Powell rejected the notion of an airdrop, saying it was dangerous and could create chaos and riots between people and refugees on the ground.

The colonel emphasized that the US has no intention of invading Burma and would not act unilaterally. "I can reassure you that this is not the case,” he said. “We are here on a humanitarian mission."

"I will put Burmese generals [on our flights], if they want to fly with us,” he insisted.

“They can sit next to our pilots and see our mission is purely humanitarian."

After Cyclone Nargis slammed Burma on May 2-3, the US government offered teams of experts and humanitarian relief supplies to the victims. Several naval vessels, including the USS Essex group, had been waiting just outside Burmese waters for more than two weeks, but had been denied permission to dock in Burma.

However, US pilots who have flown recently to Rangoon said that the reception from Burmese officers on the ground was warm and friendly.

Critics have alleged that US emergency aid may not be reaching survivors and that it is held up at Rangoon airport, before being transported to government warehouses.

According to several residents in Rangoon, some humanitarian supplies have ended up in markets in Rangoon. Responding to this issue, Powell said that the US embassy in Rangoon is monitoring this.

“The mission is not successful unless aid is in the hands of the people who need it,” said Powell. “Unfortunately, those who suffer are the Burmese people.”

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