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Standoff over aid to Myanmar

Times Staff Writers

France has sent an uninvited ship loaded with aid to the international waters off Myanmar, causing the U.N. ambassador from the Southeast Asian nation on Friday to accuse the French of dispatching a “warship.”

The international community’s desire to assist survivors of the cyclone that hit Myanmar two weeks ago has clashed with the military leadership’s insistence on controlling the distribution of aid.

The government, which raised the official death toll to 78,000 on Friday, wants to be seen as the benefactor of its people and regards outsiders with suspicion.

However, diplomats will be allowed today to tour the disaster area for the first time, Myanmar announced Friday.

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Last week, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner called Myanmar’s refusal to allow foreign teams to aid the estimated 2.5 million survivors of Tropical Cyclone Nargis a crime against humanity. He said the world had to fulfill its “responsibility to protect” the victims -- with or without the government’s permission.

U.S. officials have also considered making unauthorized airdrops or sending flotillas of supplies, but held off after United Nations officials said it was better to work on widening cooperation with the Myanmar regime rather than risk the little access that aid workers have now.

The confrontation over the French ship came in the General Assembly after Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reported that the world body had made no progress in winning more access to the ravaged delta after two weeks of repeated phone calls, letters and negotiations. U.N. emergency coordinator John Holmes will travel to Myanmar, also known as Burma, on Sunday with Ban’s third letter urging cooperation.

French Ambassador Jean-Maurice Ripert said he spoke up after Ban’s remarks because he was “a little bit surprised” that the United Nations was not pushing harder.

“I was interrupted after my first sentence by the ambassador of Myanmar, who denounced the fact that France was sending a warship to Burma,” Ripert told reporters. “It’s not true.”

Ripert said the vessel is operated by the French navy, but is not a warship. It is carrying 1,500 tons of food and medicine, and has small boats that could deliver the aid to inaccessible areas, he said. It also has small helicopters as well as doctors standing by to help.

He said Myanmar had asked the French to deliver the aid to Yangon, the country’s main city, where the military would take charge of distribution -- an arrangement Ripert denounced as “nonsense.” He said the ship instead would stay in international waters within view of the shore awaiting permission, but he would not comment on whether France might try to deliver the aid even without the regime’s approval.

“Hundreds of thousands of lives are in jeopardy, and we think that the primary responsibility of the government of Myanmar is to help and open the borders so that the international aid could come into the place,” he said.

China’s U.N. ambassador, Wang Guangya, said this week that his nation was quietly talking to Myanmar about allowing aid workers wider access.

“Their main concern is that the aid issue is being politicized,” Wang said. “But I think their suspicion is not totally groundless.”

“Some countries are talking about Security Council action to force [Myanmar authorities] to open up, some countries are talking about delivering aid without permission, so it is not surprising they are suspicious,” Wang said. “We must concentrate on the humanitarian side and encourage them to be more flexible, more open.”

In Washington, a bipartisan group of 41 House members signaled an interest in an international intervention to deliver aid without the approval of the Myanmar government.

The group, which included Rep. Howard L Berman (D-Valley Village) and Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), urged President Bush in a letter to “strongly consider supporting any effort” initiated by other countries to provide aid. They noted that officials in Britain, Germany and Denmark, as well as France, have raised the possibility of such an intervention.

Ky Luu, the director of foreign disaster aid for the U.S. Agency for International Development, said in an interview that he had seen “some movement” from the Myanmar government, notably the granting of visas to 160 aid workers from the region.

Yet he said that “more needs to be done and time is not on our side.” He noted the United Nations’ estimate that 2 million people affected by the cyclone have not received the assistance they need, including water, shelter and sanitation.

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maggie.farley@latimes.com

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paul.richter@latimes.com

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Farley reported from the United Nations and Richter from Washington.


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