updated 5/8/2008 4:01:25 PM ET 2008-05-08T20:01:25

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday the U.S. military was moving forward with plans to mount a relief mission in Myanmar, but he said he could not imagine air dropping aid without permission from the Asian nation's government.

His comments followed those earlier Thursday by Ky Luu, the director of the U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, that an air drop was one of the options being considered with the delay by Myanmar's junta in accepting assistance from the United States.

Gates said the military is moving aircraft and ships into place to help deliver humanitarian supplies once permission is granted.

"I cannot image us going in without the permission of the Myanmar government," Gates said at a Pentagon news conference with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, the top ranking U.S. military officer.

Asked if it would not be helpful to victims for the U.S. to drop supplies, Mullen said: "We could. Typically, though, it's sovereign airspace and you'd need their permission to fly in that airspace."

"It's all tied to sovereignty, which we respect whether it's on the ground or in the air," Mullen said.

Not an efficient method
Air drops are often inefficient and, compounded with the junta's refusal to accept most offers of assistance, could have broader international legal implications, Luu said, adding that the best option would be for Myanmar to accept the aid.

Still, "anything that might have a positive impact is being looked at and is being discussed," Luu told reporters at the State Department. "Air drops (are) not the most efficient manner in terms of providing relief assistance and, in the end, may create more harm than anything else."

"So, 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.

His comments came as the United States and other donor countries continued to wait for permission to enter with tons of assistance and disaster relief personnel to assess what the needs are and move toward distributing the aid. He and other U.S. officials on Thursday reiterated appeals for Myanmar to allow such access.

Among other countries considering air drops are France, whose foreign minister has suggested the possibility of forcing assistance into Myanmar, and Italy, officials said.

Complex situation
Air drops of aid in crisis situations without permission from the host government would be complicated, as international law is unsettled on the issue. Pentagon officials have said they are wary of such a scenario because it could be considered an invasion.

But French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said this week that air drops could be allowed under the U.N.'s "responsibility to protect" mandate, which applies to civilians.

Luu said that concept was being discussed in Washington as well as by senior relief officials and diplomats who are now in Bangkok, Thailand, trying to coordinate the international response to the disaster.

Officials said there were several problems with air drops into an unpermissive environment, especially if there are no experts on the ground to monitor the distribution of aid. Desperate people could riot over the assistance and there is the possibility that security forces might confiscate it and keep it out of the hands of the needy, they said.

The government has reported more than 20,000 deaths and more than 40,000 missing from Cyclone Nargis that hit Myanmar, particularly the Irrawaddy River delta, last weekend. A U.S. diplomat said Wednesday that the death toll in the delta could exceed 100,000. The U.N. estimates that a million people have been left homeless.

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