/ 12 May 2008

US flies cyclone aid to Burma

The first United States military aid flight landed in Burma on Monday, but relief supplies continued to just dribble into the reclusive state nine days after a devastating cyclone.

A C-130 military transport plane left Thailand’s Vietnam war-era U-Tapao airbase carrying 12 700kg of water, mosquito nets and blankets. US aid officials said they hope it will the the first of many US flights to the army-ruled Burma.

Greeting the plane at Rangoon airport was navy commander-in-chief Soe Thein, who promised to deliver the supplies ”as soon as possible” to the cyclone-hit region, a US embassy official in Rangoon said.

”This is Burma’s hour of need and the need is urgent,” US Agency for International Development administrator Henrietta Fore said before boarding the plane with a Thai-US delegation for the short flight to the cyclone-hit city of Rangoon.

Admiral Timothy Keating, head of the US Pacific Command, is also on the plane, to try to meet with Burma’s generals to urge them to allow a ”long, continuous train of flights” that could carry thousands of kilogrammes of relief goods a day.

”We’re limited only by the permission from the authorities in Burma,” Keating said at the Thai air base.

Minimal aid deliveries

Agencies report that deliveries to more than a million increasingly desperate cyclone victims have been minimal.

Médécins Sans Frontières (MSF) said on Sunday three cargo planes from Europe carrying medical material and other supplies were scheduled to arrive in Burma on Monday.

”More than one week after the disaster, despite the sending of three cargo planes and some positive signals, it has been very difficult to provide highly needed supplies for the heavily affected population in Myanmar,” MSF said in a statement.

”In the areas where we have been, we haven’t seen any aid being delivered so far, so the amount that has reached people in the areas where we are had been minimal,” MSF said

MSF already had a big presence in Burma before the cyclone. Aid agencies that did not are having even greater difficulties.

While Burma’s reclusive military government is accepting aid from the outside world, including the United Nations, it will not let in foreign logistics teams, who were queuing up in Bangkok hoping to get visas from the Burmese embassy.

The UN humanitarian agency said in a new assessment on Sunday that between 1,2-million and 1,9-million were struggling to survive in the aftermath of the storm.

”Given the gravity of the situation including the lack of food and water, some partners have reported fears for security, and violent behaviour in the most severely afflicted areas,” the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said.

It said ”the number of deaths could range from 63 290 to 101 682, and 220 000 people are reported to be missing”. It said ”acute environmental issues” posed a threat to life and health.

”Unless there is a massive and fast infusion of aid, experts and supplies into the hardest-hit areas, there’s going to be a tragedy on an unimaginable scale,” said Greg Beck of the International Rescue Committee.

In the delta town of Labutta, where 80% of homes were destroyed, authorities were providing one cup of rice per family per day, a European Commission aid official told Reuters.

In a blow to the stumbling relief effort, a boat carrying some of the first aid to survivors sank, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said.

The boat was believed to have hit a submerged tree in the Irrawaddy delta. The accident highlighted the enormous logistical difficulties of delivering aid, with roads washed away and much of the delta turned to swamp.

Burma raised the death toll on Sunday to 28 458 dead and 33 416 missing from the storm on the night of May 2 and early on May 3. Most of the victims were killed by the 3,5m wall of sea-water that hit the delta along with the Category-Four cyclone’s 190km/h.

Heavy rains predicted

Australia responded to a UN appeal for $187-million in aid by dramatically increasing its contribution to $23,4-million.

The UN World Food Programme said on Sunday it has begun moving aid to its field headquarters in Labutta using trucks provided by the Burma Red Cross and other local partners.

”I think you can say it continues to trickle in,” WFP spokesperson Marcus Prior said on Monday.

The more than one million worst affected lack food, water, and sanitation, face outbreaks of disease such as cholera, and heavy rains are predicted this week over the delta.

Three US navy ships are steaming toward Burma, and a French warship was expected near the country’s waters later this week, carrying 1 500 tonnes of rice that France said it wants to distribute directly to survivors.

Despite the alarm bells from the international community about the feeble cyclone relief effort, the junta kept its focus on a weekend referendum on a new Constitution, part of a ”roadmap to democracy” culminating in multiparty elections in 2010.

There is little doubt about the final result on an army-drafted Constitution after an intensive propaganda campaign by the junta urging people to vote ”Yes”. – Reuters 2008