Military allows U.S. aid, rejects foreign presence

BANGKOK, Thailand – Myanmar’s military government said Friday it had cleared a U.S. military relief flight for cyclone victims, declaring itself ready to accept aid from “all quarters.” But the junta reaffirmed that it alone will handle distribution, without foreign workers, a restriction that international agencies reject.

The mixed message left deep uncertainties in the delivery of vital food and medications a week after Tropical Cyclone Nargis swept through Myanmar’s low-lying Irrawaddy Delta, swamping villages and leaving at least 60,000 Myanmarese dead or missing.

As hundreds of thousands of people stranded by the tidal surge desperately await aid, the Bush administration pressured China and other allies of Myanmar’s military government, hoping they would prevail on it to open its doors to help.

“The situation is getting critical and there is only a small window of opportunity if we are to avert the spread of diseases that could multiply the already tragic number of casualties,” Noeleen Heyzer, the top U.N. official in Asia, said in a statement.

Diplomatic overtures were having little influence on the junta, which brutally put down a popular uprising last year in a country whose citizens’ deeply held Buddhist traditions often interpret natural disasters as a sign of political illegitimacy. The generals who rule Myanmar view foreign assistance – even in the storm’s dire aftermath – as a potential threat to their two-decade hold on power.

On Friday, authorities at the airport of Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, impounded food and equipment delivered by two U.N. planes the previous day. In response, officials from the organization’s World Food Program announced a suspension of flights. The Myanmarese also turned away a search-and-rescue team from the Persian Gulf state of Qatar that arrived without clearance to enter the country.

Later Friday, World Food Program headquarters overturned the initial ruling and said that two more aid planes would land in Myanmar today but that discussions on who will distribute the supplies would continue.

“The U.N. system does not fly in goods, hand them to the government and then fly away,” said Richard Horsey of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. “We have certain requirements on accountability. Beneficiaries have to be identified on the basis of need, and delivery has to be monitored.”

The United Nations has pressed for a week to get about 40 visas for U.N. logistics and disaster relief coordinators and technicians to help scale up a massive operation.

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