- The Washington Times - Friday, June 6, 2008

YANGON, Burma (AP) - The U.S. military said Friday it is keeping 22 helicopters on standby in case Burma’s ruling junta reverses its rejection of such help for cyclone victims, saying the aircraft could ferry emergency supplies to most survivors within three days.

Burma’s government, meanwhile, lashed out at its own citizens and foreign media for what it called distorted coverage of the aftermath of the devastating storm a month ago. It said the country’s image had been tarnished by false claims that aid isn’t getting to people.

U.N. officials and aid groups have criticized the regime for hindering aid work, which they say has kept enough food, water and shelter from reaching some 1 million desperate survivors.

The top U.N. humanitarian official, John Holmes, said in New York there are now “relatively few people” who have not received any sort of help, but he stressed that “this aid effort needs to be stepped up further.”

“I think people are getting to all the main places, although it’s not always as easy as it should be,” Holmes said. “There’s no evidence of starvation at the moment, although as I say many people are still in significant need of aid.”

The new offer of U.S. military help came after four Navy ships loaded with helicopters and relief supplies sailed away Thursday from the coast of Burma, where they had been on station for three weeks in hope of getting permission to provide assistance.

Prospects that the offer would be accepted appeared slim, especially as Burma’s military regime has begun exhibiting heightened sensitivity over foreign perceptions of the crisis.

The U.N. estimates a total of 2.4 million people were affected when Cyclone Nargis hit May 2-3, and warns that more than 1 million of those still need help, mostly in the hard-to-reach Irrawaddy delta.

“Of the 1 million or 1.5 million people in need of relief support, we think that between 450,000 to 750,000 are in emergency need,” said Lt. Gen. John Goodman, commander of Marine Forces Pacific and head of the U.S. relief operation for Burma.

They could be reached “over the course of a three-day period” by American helicopters and landing craft, he said in telephone interview from a temporary U.S. staging area at Utapao, Thailand.

Goodman said the junta was “still considering” the offer, which would include allowing Burma officials aboard all U.S. helicopters to monitor their routes and to unload relief supplies.

The offer includes 10 helicopters aboard the USS Essex, an amphibious assault ship now steaming from Burma toward Thailand, and 12 more based at Utapao, said Lt. Col. Douglas Powell, a spokesman for what has been dubbed operation Caring Relief.

With only seven Burma government helicopters reportedly flying, relief supplies are mostly being transported along dirt roads and then by boat. International aid agencies say boats able to navigate the delta’s canals are scarce and efforts to import vehicles have been hampered by government red tape.

Burma’s military rulers have allowed Marine C-130 cargo planes to fly 116 missions to deliver more than 2.2 million pounds of aid to Yangon, the country’s biggest city, Goodman said. But U.S. military units have been kept out of hard-to-reach areas in the devastated Irrawaddy delta.

The junta is particularly sensitive to letting in U.S. helicopters, which would highlight the American effort in a country where the people have been taught to see the U.S. as a hostile aggressor. Washington is a leading critic of the junta for its poor human rights record and failure to hand over power to a democratically elected government.

The military regime seems increasingly focused on its image.

Its public criticism of reporting on aid efforts came a day after authorities detained a popular comedian who had just returned from helping cyclone survivors and had said government aid was not reaching some victims.

Unconfirmed reports circulated Friday in Yangon that at least a dozen people involved in filming cyclone victims in the Irrawaddy delta have been arrested.

The state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper, considered a mouthpiece for the junta, accused “self-seekers and unscrupulous elements” of working in collusion with foreigners to shoot videos with what its aid were made-up stories in storm-ravaged areas in the delta.

“Those foreign news agencies are issuing such groundless news stories with the intention of tarnishing the image of Myanmar and misleading the international community into believing that cyclone victims do not receive any assistance,” the newspaper said.

Well-known comedian Maung Thura – whose stage name is Zarganar – was taken from his home in Yangon by police Wednesday night after going to the Irrawaddy delta to donate relief items to survivors, his family said.

A family member said Friday that they had heard nothing from Zarganar and the junta had given no reason for his detention.

“We stopped our cyclone relief activities yesterday, but we will have to resume our relief assistance tomorrow,” the relative said.

Zarganar, 46, and his team had made video records of their relief activities and the comedian gave interviews critical of the government’s relief effort to foreign media, including British Broadcasting Corp., whose news broadcasts are popular in Burma.

In an interview with the Thailand-based magazine Irrawaddy before his arrest, Zarganar said some areas in the delta had not been reached by the government or international aid groups. Zarganar said his group distributed food, blankets, mosquito nets and other aid.

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