US: Air drop possible, but access to Myanmar comes first

from Deutsche Presse Agentur
Published on 08 May 2008 View Original
Washington_(dpa) _ US aid officials on Thursday implored the Myanmar government to allow them access to the country in order to help victims of a cyclone over the weekend that has left tens of thousands of people dead.

While Ky Luu, a director with the US agency's foreign disaster assistance office, did not rule out the possibility of air drops, he said that approach carried so many problems related to infrastructure and cooperation from the government on the ground that it was unlikely.

"Yes, we're looking at it, but the immediate needs are for open access for the current existing operational partners and for the regime in order to open up to provide for additional relief workers to get on the ground," Luu said.

To date, the Myanmar government says 23,000 people are confirmed dead and another 42,000 are missing. Outside observers say the death toll could climb to as many as 100,000.

The US government has pledged 3 million dollars in aid to victims of Cyclone Nargis, but Myanmar's ruling military junta has been slow in authorizing visas for foreign aid workers and has not authorized a US assessment team to enter the country.

"Some assistance is starting to get in, but it is a trickle. It is not enough. It needs to have a greater size and a greater speed," said Henrietta Fore, director of foreign assistance for the United States Agency for International Development.

"We are urging the Burmese regime to grant full access to the affected areas to international humanitarian teams and to nongovernmental organizations so that they can help and provide assistance to those who are most in need," she said.

The US aid agency has allocated 1 million dollars of its contribution to the International Red Cross, but needs to evaluate the situation on the ground in Myanmar before determining how best to allocate the rest.

The US embassy in Yangon, Myanmar's largest city, also released 250,000 dollars in emergency funds to the World Food Programme and the UN refugee programme.

As those impacted by the storm suffer from the destruction of their homes and lack of access to clean water and food, the Myanmar government needs to speed access for international assistance, US officials said.

"We need a decision made soon. I mean, you know, we're approaching almost a week here, when the cyclone hit the impacted areas, and we need to get commodities in as quickly as possible and establish in-country a logistics in order to move commodities out," Luu said.

The government would consider channelling its assistance through other international organizations, but thinks it could be most effective with a team on the ground, he said.

Myanmar has been under military dictatorships since 1962. The current regime has earned itself pariah status among Western democracies for repeatedly crushing anti-government protests and refusing to hasten moves toward democracy.

Critics of the regime charged that it is deliberately hampering the granting of visas so it could claim the credit for relief work in the countryside.

But the enormity of the disaster is likely to force the regime to loosen visa restrictions on aid workers or face the prospect of mounting casualties to hunger and disease.

"We would hope that politics do not come into play," said Luu. "We would hope that with the size and the scale of this crisis that the focus is on the victims and the focus is on being able to allow access and allow our operational partners to be able to deliver life-saving assistance." dpa aw pr

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