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U.S. pressing to deliver aid to Myanmar

The Pentagon readied people and equipment for an aid mission to cyclone-stricken Myanmar, but the top U.S. diplomat in the Asian nation said its military junta was "paranoid" about accepting American help.
Image: Cyclone victims in Myanmar
A family is living in a makeshift tent next to their destroyed house in Dedaye, about 30 miles south of Yangon, Myanmar. Khin Maung Win / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Pentagon readied people and equipment for an aid mission to cyclone-stricken Myanmar, but the top U.S. diplomat in the Asian nation said its military junta was "paranoid" about accepting American help.

The U.S. military was putting people and airplanes into position Wednesday in nearby Thailand. But Myanmar's government had not accepted the U.S. offer to send aid, U.S. defense and diplomatic officials said. The top American diplomat in Yangon, Charge d'Affaires Shari Villarosa, said the country's military junta is paranoid about the United States but is not blocking American aid in retaliation for past criticism.

"It's a very paranoid regime," she told reporters in a conference call. She said lower reaches of the Myanmar regime appear to recognize the magnitude of the problem, but the senior leadership is isolated and has not yet announced a decision on how to handle outside aid, large amounts of which are moving into the area.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice joined the growing call for Myanmar's leaders to accept the contributions, regardless of the policies of the donors.

'A humanitarian crisis'
"It should be a simple matter," Rice told reporters at the State Department. "This is not a matter of politics, this is a matter of a humanitarian crisis and it should be a matter that the government of Burma wants to see its people receive the help that is available to them."

Her spokesman, Sean McCormack, said the department was asking Myanmar's neighbors and traditional friends, including China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia and Thailand to help make the case for accepting aid.

The message is: "Use what leverage you have with the Burmese government to get them to allow in outside assistance teams so they can help make an assessment and provide on-the-ground assistance to help out with what is very clearly a humanitarian disaster of immense scope," he said.

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

There also are Navy ships in the region that have been alerted they could be called to help. But officials were not optimistic.

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

Villarosa said there were shortages of food and water and that the death toll could hit or exceed 100,000 as humanitarian conditions worsen.

She said she met with three ministers this week and is pressing hard to allow U.S. aid into the country. The junta is blocking aid from other nations, and does not appear to be singling out the United States because of the White House focus on human rights and other abuses in Myanmar, she said.

Asked if the U.S. would air drop aid without the Myanmar junta's permission, Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman said: "If you're not asked and it's not requested, it's considered an invasion."

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

Image: Food aid in Myanmar
A cyclone-affected woman eats relief food at a unknown village in Irrawaddy Delta on May 5, 2008. Aid experts on May 7 warned of a looming health crisis in Myanmar, where millions of cyclone victims face outbreaks of disease as they struggle to survive without clean water, food or shelter five days after Cyclone Nargis crashed into one of the world's poorest countries, killing more than 22,000 people. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read AFP/AFP/Getty Images)Afp / AFP

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 cyclone in Myanmar, up from an initial emergency contribution of $250,000.