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Gates: Navy Ships Could Leave Burma Coast ‘Within Days’

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

SINGAPORE, June 1, 2008 – The United States likely will decide “within days” to move four U.S. Navy ships that have been waiting off the coast of Burma for permission from the country’s ruling military junta to provide help to cyclone-stricken residents, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said here today.

“No decision has been made at this point, but they obviously have been out there steaming around in circles for a long time,” Gates told reporters during the final day of an Asia security conference here. “At this point, it is becoming pretty clear that the regime is not going to let us help.”

Gates expressed frustration that the junta repeatedly has refused to allow a group of ships led by the USS Essex to deliver relief supplies at a port and use their helicopters to deliver them to those in need.

Emphasizing that the United States has made no less than 15 direct overtures to the Burmese asking for permission to help, Gates said it may be time to accept “no” as the answer.

“We have tried and tried,” he said. “Frankly, we have … exercised our moral obligation above and beyond the call. And yes, we are beginning to think about what the right time is to move the Essex.”

Gates noted that even Burma’s fellow Association of Southeast Asian Nations members have failed to get the junta to permit more than a trickle of aid. “No one seems to have been able to make an impact on the government,” he said.

So far, the Burmese have allowed 95 U.S. C-130 relief flights into Rangoon, but Gates called it a drop in the bucket of what’s available and what’s needed. The only way to get that aid to the remote Irawaddy Delta that’s been hardest hit by the cyclone is with helicopters, he noted.

“We have 22 helicopters sitting on those ships that could take relief directly to the people who are stranded and isolated and unreachable by any other means right now,” said Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “So there is a lot of capability there, and it is just very, very regretful that we can’t use it.”

Mullen said plans are being worked up so that when the United States releases its ships from the area, the relief supplies they are carrying can be left nearby, to be delivered by U.S. aircraft or other means, as permitted.

And even when they begin to leave, they’ll “still be in the vicinity for awhile,” he said, leaving the door open should Burmese officials change their minds.

Gates called the junta’s refusals to allow more aid “akin to criminal neglect” that will cause even more loss of life. “Many of those who are victims of the cyclone will die,” he said. “It is that simple.”

The only alternative would be for the international community to band together to intervene by force – something Gates said he saw no interest in from any of the 27 nations represented at the three-day Asia Security Summit. “There literally was not a single country or minister that expressed any interest whatsoever in trying to provide this assistance forcibly,” he said.

“I think that there is great sensitivity all over the world to violating a county’s sovereignty, particularly in the absence of some kind of U.N. umbrella that would authorize it,” he explained.

While not favoring forced intervention, participants at the security conference did little to hide their collective disdain for Burma’s failure to accept most of the aid that’s been offered. Gates said it was interesting to watch Burma’s representative at the session squirm as “minister after minister described their respective unhappiness at their inability to get assistance into Burma.”

Meanwhile, Chinese Lt. Gen. M.A. Xiatian, deputy chief of general staff for the People’s Liberation Army, expressed deep appreciation at the same forum to countries who had come to his country’s aid after a deadly earthquake. “The contrast was pretty stark,” Gates said.

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