|Cyclone survivors sat under a tree in the Delta region of Burma yesterday. The country diverted a French ship carrying aid. (Associated Press)|
Burma diverts ship carrying aid
French vessel sent to Thailand
BANGKOK - As foreign aid groups waited yesterday for Burma to honor a promise of free access to millions of isolated cyclone survivors, France registered "shock" that one of its warships had been unable to unload a 1,000-ton cargo of aid.
The foreign and defense ministries said in a statement late Sunday that the French military vessel, the Mistral, had been diverted to Thailand to hand over its cargo to the World Food Program for distribution after the Burmese authorities refused permission to unload directly.
The French communique said that nothing "can justify the victims of a catastrophe finding themselves being denied the basic right to benefit from the necessary aid." The development came one day after representatives of 52 donor nations met at a highly unusual gathering in Rangoon to discuss aid to survivors of Cyclone Nargis, which struck May 3.
Leading the one-day meeting, the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said that the Burma government was "moving fast in the right direction" and that he was confident Burma would honor a pledge, made to him on Friday by the leader of its military junta, Senior General Than Shwe, to allow aid workers into the country. Ban offered no details, according to reporters from news agencies who were permitted to accompany him in Burma.
"There is good reason to hope that aid to the worst affected areas of Myanmar will increase significantly in the coming days," Ban said, using the name the junta uses for Burma. But he insisted that donors would need "unhindered access to the areas hardest hit by the disaster," access that has been denied to most foreigners.
The French statement on Sunday said French officials were "particularly shocked" that the Burmese authorities had not permitted the Mistral to unload its aid cargo directly for distribution in the Irrawaddy Delta - the worst-hit area.
The statement said the 1,000 tons of aid included enough rice and water purification tablets to provide food and clean water to 100,000 people for 15 days as well as medicine, tents, and mosquito nets. In the first public comment by the government since the pledge to Ban, Burma's prime minister, Thein Sein, appeared to confirm the new policy on access. "We would warmly welcome any assistance and aid which are provided with genuine good will from any country or organization, provided that there are no strings attached nor politicization involved," he said.
But, as the incident involving the Mistral seemed to show, that invitation did not appear to include American, British, and French naval ships that had been cruising off the Burmese coast loaded with supplies, equipment, and small boats.
The official news media in Burma have said no naval vessels would be permitted to deliver supplies. Over the last week, under an agreement with the government, American military aircraft have made 60 landings with relief supplies in Rangoon, the country's main city, but Americans arriving with the deliveries have been confined to the airport.
At the Rangoon conference Sunday, several countries made preliminary pledges of more than $150 million in aid, the Associated Press reported, but most were contingent on gaining greater access.
Burma is asking for about $11 billion in reconstruction aid.