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International flotilla awaits Myanmar go-ahead

Image: US navy ships awaiting approval to transfer aid supplies to cyclone-struck Myanmar
A pallet of supplies is transferred from a supply ship to the USS Essex, stationed south of Yangon, Myanmar. The ship is awaiting permission from the military junta to transfer relief aid to the impoverished country. How Hwee Young / EPA
/ Source: The Associated Press

Lt. Denver Applehans runs down the list of what's ready, almost within sight of Myanmar's cyclone-devastated shore.

Four U.S. ships laden with 14 helicopters, two landing-craft vessels, two high-tech amphibious hovercraft and about 1,000 Marines — help that has been there for a week, prevented by the country's military junta from delivering aid.

"We are currently not providing any aid from the ships," said Applehans, a public affairs officer aboard the USS Essex.

A deal may be in the works, however, to allow the U.S. flotilla — and French and British ships in the same situation — to finally join in the relief effort after Cyclone Nargis.

Myanmar’s junta, facing global outrage for spurning international assistance, appeared to relent Monday, saying it would allow its Asian neighbors to oversee the distribution of foreign relief to cyclone survivors.

It also approved a visit by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and prepared to host a meeting of aid donors, while claiming that losses from the May 2-3 disaster exceeded $10 billion.

Aid to provide boost
The ships are capable of providing a huge boost to relief operations for the more than 2 million people believed to be in severe need of help.

British Foreign Office Minister Lord Malloch-Brown said the military regime was considering the arrangement, and said he was guardedly optimistic.

"I think if there were Asian partners able to transship into the delta area from ships, this may become an option," Malloch-Brown told the British Broadcasting Corp. Sunday. "I think you're going to see quite dramatic steps by the Burmese to open up."

During an emergency meeting in Singapore, Southeast Asia's regional bloc announced it would set up a task force to handle distribution of foreign aid for cyclone victims. Details remained sketchy, however.

The junta is under tremendous pressure to relent.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said over the weekend the cyclone is fast being surpassed by what he called a "man-made catastrophe" and warned that Britain would consider circumventing the junta if it continued to deny its people much-needed help.

He did not give details — though the possibility of air drops or direct landings ashore has been raised.

"We rule nothing out, and the reason we rule nothing out, is that we want to get the aid directly to the people," he said.

Britain currently chairs the U.N. Security Council, but resolutions to approve direct intervention in the delta were unlikely because China, Myanmar's biggest ally, has veto power and in the past has supported the junta against international pressure.

The Bush administration has been highly critical of the junta's handling of the disaster, but has tried to couple its outrage with diplomatic efforts out of concern the military rulers will shut off what little aid it is already allowing in.

The flotilla still waits
In the meantime, the flotilla — made up of the USS Essex, USS Juneau, USS Harpers Ferry and USS Mustin — still waits.

The U.S. ships can produce more than 70,000 gallons of drinkable water per day and the Marines carry equipment capable of producing 5,000 gallons more per hour ashore. On the ships are more than 120 Navy medics, 12 doctors and three dentists.

Britain's Ministry of Defense has dispatched a Royal Navy frigate, the HMS Westminster, to stand ready to help Myanmar. It is stationed 12 miles off Myanmar's coast "and will remain there as part of the UK's humanitarian contingency plans," the government said.

It has a crew of 98 and is equipped with a communications facility, a Merlin helicopter, two sea boats, a doctor and a paramedic, the defense ministry said.

France, meanwhile, has an amphibious assault ship, Mistral, nearby.

French Defense Minister Herve Morin said French officials were still negotiating with Myanmar on delivering its cargo, adding that he hoped Myanmar allows "this important effort that France is making to save a population in distress."