Myanmar may allow UN relief helicopters, US navy pulls out

June 4th, 2008 - 8:47 pm ICT by IANS  

Bangkok, June 4 (DPA) The UN World Food Programme (WFP) hopes to have 10 helicopters delivering food and other relief supplies to cyclone victims in the Irrawaddy delta as early as the end of the week, while the US Navy said it will withdraw four ships because the ruling junta has refused their help. The WFP already has one helicopter in Myanmar that has flown twice, and nine more helicopters waiting in Thailand, said Paul Risley, a spokesman with the WFP.

“There is still a critical need for these helicopters, especially for heavy lifting in bringing food assistance in the last leg of distribution to communities in the delta,” he said in Bangkok.

Risley called it a “terrific logistical challenge and a very expensive challenge” getting the helicopters to Myanmar but said 90 percent of the work had now been done. They are only waiting for permission from the Myanmar government to use the helicopters.

“We hope by the end of the week that the nine helicopters as a group will receive the proper clearance and will travel together from Bangkok to Yangon,” he said.

The WFP and the UN maintain a standing fleet of helicopters, and when the Myanmar junta said they would allow the UN to bring in helicopters “we jumped at that opportunity,” he said, adding it was “unfortunate” the ruling generals would not allow foreign military helicopters into the country.

The US Navy had more than 20 heavy duty helicopters ready to go on their four ships off Myanmar’s coast, but Wednesday said they are putting the vessels back into regular duty because repeated attempts to help been refused.

Risley said “unfortunately” Myanmar will not allow foreign military helicopters to fly in their airspace but they are getting UN helicopters in.

“We are slowly bringing helicopters to bear, I only wish we could bering them sooner,” he said.

Risley said the WFP had delivered 8,500 tons of food as of June 2, but it was difficult to determine how many people in need had been reached.

Along with other UN agencies and non-governmental agencies working on cyclone relief for victims of Cyclone Nargis that struck Myanmar May 2 and 3, the WFP said it was still trying to assess the needs of the victims.

UN officials estimate more than 77,000 have been killed and 55,000 others are missing since Cyclone Nargis struck.

Cyclone Nargis left an estimated 2.4 million people in need of food, shelter or medical care. The UN said some 1.3 million have received assistance.

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