Myanmar allows more U.S. aid flights

The government of Myanmar has authorized five more U.S. flights to land in Myanmar with needed aid for survivors of last week's cyclone, a U.S. Marine spokesman said.

Three planes had left an airbase in Thailand by about 12 p.m. local time, and two more were scheduled to take off soon, said Lt. Col. Doug Powell of the U.S. Marine Corps, reported CNN.

The five flights will deliver 46 pallets loaded with bottled water, plastic sheeting and hygiene kits as well as crackers and powdered milk, Powell said. The relief supplies the U.S. military plans to deliver to Myanmar on Wednesday weigh 197,080 pounds (83939 kg), he said.

Three additional U.S. military flights have gone into Myanmar already this week -- one on Monday and two on Tuesday. They carried food, mosquito netting and plastic tarpaulins.

Meanwhile, the USS Essex, USS Juneau and USS Harpers Ferry were in international waters off the coast of Myanmar laden with more than 14,000 containers of fresh water and other aid, awaiting orders to deliver by air or landing craft, Pentagon officials said.

On Tuesday, a U.S. military commander said Myanmar's government seemed unaware of the scope of the death and destruction Cyclone Nargis wrought on the country.

Adm. Timothy Keating, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, was on the first of three U.S. aid flights allowed into Myanmar this week. He described meeting with a Myanmar three-star general who opened up a map of the country and pointed to the areas worst-hit by the cyclone.

"[He] characterized activity there as returning back to normal -- his words," Keating said. "[He said] people are coming back to their villages, they're planting their crops for the summer season, the monsoon will come and wash all the saltwater out of the ponds.

"His manner, his demeanor, his attitude indicated something less than very serious concern."

The United Nations estimates that between 63,000 and 100,000 people died as a result of Cyclone Nargis. The United States has pledged $16.25 million in aid to the country.

The two U.S. aid flights that arrived Tuesday carried water, blankets, plastic sheets, mosquito nets and other relief supplies, the U.S. military said. Together with a third flight that arrived in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, on Monday, the planes carried 70,000 pounds of supplies.

Government forces took possession of the aid shipment on the tarmac, transferring it from a C-130 U.S. transport plane onto helicopters, said Ky Luu, the director of foreign disaster assistance for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Keating said he offered Myanmar the assistance of thousands of U.S. sailors and Marines, plus U.S. military aircraft.

"The Burmese were cordial; they acknowledged our offers of assistance, but we got no firm decisions from them," Keating said.

"The Burmese simply said, 'We will take these matters under consideration; we will have to discuss them with the prime minister, and we will get back to you when we have a decision,' " he said. "It may be days; it may be longer."

The cyclone hit Myanmar on the night of May 2, but junta leaders have been reluctant to allow foreign aid workers into the country.

The delay has caused concern among aid agencies and foreign governments and sparked unusually strong remarks from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who blasted the junta's "unacceptably slow response."

The U.N. said the World Food Programme was getting in only 20 percent of the food needed because of logistical problems and government restrictions, The Associated Press reported Tuesday.

"There is obviously still a lot of frustration that this aid effort hasn't picked up pace," spokesman Richard Horsey told AP.

There was also concern Tuesday about the quality of relief supplies reaching storm victims.

CARE Australia staff have found rotting rice being distributed to people in the worst-hit Irrawaddy Delta, its director in Myanmar, Brian Agland, told AP.

"I have a small sample in my pocket, and it's some of the poorest quality rice we've seen," he said. "It's affected by saltwater, and it's very old."

A former Yangon resident now living in Thailand told AP that angry government officials told him that high-energy biscuits rushed into Myanmar on the World Food Program's first flights were sent to a military warehouse.

Speaking on condition of anonymity over fears for his safety, he told AP that the biscuits were exchanged for what officials said were "tasteless and low-quality" biscuits produced by the Industry Ministry.

Victims in outlying areas are now arriving in towns and cities to seek the assistance they haven't received, said Bridget Gardner, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross delegation in Myanmar.

"We can see that some of the major needs are related to water and sanitation," Gardner said.

If junta leaders are unaware of the extent of the disaster, however, local leaders and medical officers know all too well, Gardner said.

"They're very aware of the issues they're facing in their townships," she said, adding that local Red Cross volunteers have actively been providing assistance with existing supplies.

The U.S. military will not make any flights into the country without the government's approval, Keating said.

"We have to deal with the leadership of the country," he said. "That is our government's position, and that's what we're prepared to do."

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