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US Ships in Frustrating Wait Off Burma's Coast to Deliver Aid

Burma's government is denying entry to helicopters and relief supplies from U.S. Navy ships waiting offshore, near the Irawaddy Delta. Relief groups say as many as two million people remain in desperate need of food, water, medicines and other relief supplies following the storm on May 3 that killed nearly 78,000 people. Thousands of others are still missing. VOA Southeast Asia correspondent Luis Ramirez is aboard USS Essex off the Burmese coast and has this report.

Crews aboard the USS Essex and three other U.S. Navy ships have been waiting in international waters in the Andaman Sea, roughly 100 kilometers from the Burmese coast, for several days. On board, bags of fresh water and medicines - relief supplies that aid agencies on the ground say are desperately needed by millions of survivors of Cyclone Nargis.

Helicopters aboard the Essex have been preparing for a huge airlift. For now, they have nowhere to go. U.S. military cargo airplanes have been flying in aid in small amounts to Burma's main city, Rangoon, but the Burmese government has yet to grant permission the U.S. has been seeking to move large quantities of supplies and equipment aboard helicopters and landing craft to remote areas of the Irawaddy Delta where it is needed the most.

To start, the U.S. says it is ready to start delivering tens of thousands of liters of fresh water produced aboard the ships each day.

Below the deck of the Essex, sailors and Marines work quickly to fill large plastic bladders with fresh water that's desalinated on the ship's evaporators.

Sheila Bird, a young Navy recruit from the U.S. state of California - on her knees along with her shipmates, filling a plastic bladder from a large water faucet. She says she wishes that politics would not stand in the way of getting cyclone victims the help they need. She says it is painful to think that people so desperately need this clean water only a few kilometers away.

"It's definitely frustrating. I've volunteered twice. My lieutenant commander knows that I want to go in there and help. This is the least I could do," she said.

Petty Officer Kristopher Pevoto says working in a relief operation following another major disaster taught him what the U.S. military and its vast resources could do for Burma.

"I was at the Indonesia one for the tsunami a couple of years ago. It's great being able to help. It would be great. It would be nicer if we could get in and do more. It made a great difference. Now, we've just got water sitting down there, not doing anything. Just waiting for them. Wish we could get it to them," he said.

U.S. military officials say the ships are now positioned so that they could mobilize everything from landing craft to state-of-the-art operating rooms in a matter of hours of getting permission from Burma's leaders.

Burmese officials have told the U.S. government they are considering the offers. Analysts say Burma's reluctance to accept wider U.S. help reflects the reclusive junta's fears of a U.S. presence. On Friday, U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Carol Pottenger, Commander of the 7th Fleet Amphibian Force, sought to dispel suspicions that Burmese leaders might have about American intentions.

"I'd like to invite them out here to the Essex. We'd show them what we can do [and] build a level of trust - that we really want to help and what we can do to offer that ssistance and what we can do to alleviate the suffering of their population," she said.

The U.S. ships and troops, normally stationed at U.S. bases in Japan, were ordered to the Burmese coast while taking part in joint exercises with Thailand this month.