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First U.S. Aid Flight To Burma

First U.S. Aid Flight To Burma Will Fly Without Visas


by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- The U.S. prepared its first airlift of relief supplies to Burma's cyclone victims, but the flight scheduled for Monday will not include America's Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) because they were denied visas, U.S. officials said.

Cyclone Nargis and its aftermath killed more than 28,000 people, but U.S. and other foreign officials said tens of thousands more have been dying, due to malicious neglect by Burma's military regime.

"The DART team does not have their visas, so the flight is just going to be aid [cargo]," a U.S. Embassy spokesperson said in an interview on Sunday night.

Burma's generals demanded all incoming relief supplies be delivered to Yangon International Airport and turned over to troops for distribution without international supervision, much to the anger and dismay of U.S., U.N. and other aid workers.

A DART leader said earlier this week they were stuck in Bangkok hoping Burma would issue visas, so the U.S. could directly provide water, food, shelter and safety to countless thousands of people suffering from the cyclone.

A U.S. C-130 cargo plane was being loaded on Sunday at Thailand's Utapao Royal Thai Navy Air Base, and was expected to lift off around mid-day Bangkok time on Monday, the U.S. Embassy spokesperson said.

U.S. officials said they would reveal, on Monday, details of what supplies were being loaded onto the flight.

They declined to say how the cargo would be handled when it lands in Yangon, the cyclone-wrecked commerical port also known as Rangoon.

Most of the dead, dying, diseased and hungry survivors were trapped in devastated areas southwest of Rangoon, on the exposed, sea- level, rice-growing Irrawaddy River delta.

Burma's troops have cleared some roads from Rangoon to the delta, but several bridges were destroyed, limiting overland travel.

Local aid workers and survivors were forced on Sunday to continue using rickety boats to reach towns and villages cut off by floods after the cyclone hit on May 2 and 3.

A double-decker Red Cross boat, carrying rice and drinking water for 1,000 cyclone victims near the delta town of Mawlamyinegyun, sank on Sunday, but all four relief workers on board were safe, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said, according to Associated Press.

Burma has allowed several planes to land with emergency goods, but has not given out visas to the U.S., U.N., or foreign non- governmental organizations waiting in Bangkok to deliver massive aid.

Countries which handed over relief goods to Burma's military at the airport -- allowing distribution to be unsupervised by foreigners -- include Thailand, India, China, Japan, Laos, Bangladesh, Singapore, Malaysia and Italy.

Monday's U.S. flight was being packed with relief goods by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which had deployed 10 DART experts in response to the cyclone.

But USAID was forced by Burma to leave the DART experts on the ground in Bangkok.

USAID did not want to dump the boxes at Yangon International Airport without supervising the distribution to the victims on the Irrawaddy delta, but they may have to if Burma's troops insist on taking the aid upon delivery.

The 10 DART experts wanted visas so they could assess what "non- food relief items" are available in the impoverished Southeast Asian country, and what supplies would have to be flown in from USAID's "warehouses" located in the United States, Italy and Dubai, DART leader William S. Berger said in an interview on Thursday.

For this disaster, which includes massive floods and destroyed homes, items such as "plastic sheeting for shelter, plastic jerry cans for water, blankets, tents" and other basic survival goods are a priority, Mr. Berger said.

DART's 10 experts include people experienced in providing "livelihood, shelter, water sanitation and hygiene, protection, food aid, information, logistics, communications, safety and security, and administration," said Mr. Berger, 58, originally from Austin, Texas, but now based in Bangkok after about 15 years in Asia.

The DART leader said "protection" means making sure "vulnerable groups, such as women and children," remain a priority during emergency relief operations.

"'Safety and security' means making sure we are safe and secure when we are traveling around," he said.

"I've been working with USAID for 10 years," and coordinated their Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) during the December 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka, plus the devastating earthquakes which hit Gujarat, India, in January 2001 and in Pakistan's Himalayas in October, 2005, he said.

OFDA responds to major natural disasters worldwide, such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, cyclones, floods, droughts, fires, pest infestations, and disease outbreaks, plus civil conflict, terrorism, and large-scale industrial accidents.

"Every disaster is unique," he said, pointing to the Pakistan earthquake as an especially tough assignment because of the steep mountainous terrain, approaching winter snows, and isolated wrecked villages which were difficult to reach.

After the Bay of Bengal cyclone hit Burma's south coast, USAID provided $250,000 for emergency relief assistance.

"That money was given to UNICEF, UNHCR and the World Food Program," Mr. Berger said, referring to United Nations organizations which are also providing assistance.

USAID gave an additional one million dollars to the American Red Cross to help rescue survivors in Burma, he said.

Burma's government-controlled media said the cyclone killed more than 28,000 people, mainly on the heavily populated, worst-hit Irrawaddy River delta.

"The information we are receiving indicates over 100,000 deaths," the U.S. charge d'affaires in Burma, Shari Villarosa, said on Wednesday.

None of the death toll estimates could be independently verified.

Disease, carried by polluted water and mosquitoes, threatens to sicken hundreds of thousands of people trapped on the delta, who hungry and homeless.

Some survivors described horrific scenes of bloated, rotting corpses floating in flooded rice fields, and fights erupting over scare commodities.

"More aid from foreign countries will arrive here. The aid from the foreign countries is immediately distributed to the storm victims," Burma's government-controlled New Light of Myanmar said.

*************

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of "Hello My Big Big Honey!", a non-fiction book of investigative journalism, and his web page is http://www.geocities.com/asia_correspondent

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