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Gates: U.S. Military Ready to Help; Ships, Air Support Staged

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 8, 2008 – The tragedy following a devastating cyclone in Burma is compounded by the fact that the U.S. military and others are ready to help, but can’t without the ruling military junta’s approval, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Navy Adm. Mike Mullen speak with members of the press at the Pentagon, May 8, 2008. Defense Department photo by Cherie Cullen

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Gates pointed to the huge U.S. military responses following the December 2004 tsunami in Indonesia that left 225,000 people dead, and an October 2005 earthquake in Pakistan that killed more than 74,000, as examples of what can be offered in Burma.

“The tragedy is compounded by the fact that that, if you look at what our Navy was able to do both with the tsunami and the Pakistan earthquake, there is a lot of opportunity here to save a lot of lives,” Gates told reporters during a Pentagon briefing. “We are fully prepared to help and to help right away. And it would be a tragedy if these assets, if people didn’t take advantage of them.”

The Navy is dispatching helicopters from the USS Essex strike group to a staging area in Thailand, where they will be able to reach Burma with relief supplies “in a matter of hours,” Gates said.

In addition, six C-130 aircraft also are available to provide humanitarian support and could airdrop food and water if granted position, he said.

Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the United States honors Burma’s sovereignty and would not enter its airspace without approval. “It is all tied to sovereignty, which we respect whether it’s on the ground or in the air,” he said. “Right now we just don’t have any way to get into that airspace with permission.”

As the international community pressures the military junta to accept help, the Navy’s three ships in the Gulf of Thailand -- USS Essex, USS Juneau and USS Harper’s Ferry -- are steaming toward Burma’s waters to be available to help if the government concedes. Mullen said the ships should be in a position within about five days.

The ships were in the region conducting Exercise Cobra Gold when the cyclone hit May 1 and 2.

Asked if the presence of U.S. ships nearby might be viewed by the military junta as an aggressive act, Gates said he would be “surprised if they misinterpreted our intentions that badly.”

News accounts place the latest death toll in Burma at 80,000 or even higher.

Gates said the United States will work with other countries, if necessary, to help. "Our interest here is totally nonpolitical," he said. "It's to try to help the people of Myanmar,” he said.

The United States does not officially recognize Burma by the name bestowed by its military junta, Myanmar.

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Robert M. Gates
Adm. Mike Mullen

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