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US Positions Forces to Help Burma, But Won't Go In Without Permission

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the U.S. military has taken more action to prepare to deliver help to victims of the Burma cyclone. But he says he "can't imagine" U.S. forces would enter Burma or its airspace without permission, as one U.S. official had suggested earlier Thursday. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.

Secretary Gates says a U.S. Navy strike group in the Gulf of Thailand for a disaster relief exercise has sent several of its helicopters ashore so they can respond quickly to any request for help from Burma. Officials say the helicopters could fly into Burma in just a few hours. Meanwhile, Secretary Gates says, the ships will begin the five-day journey around the Malaysian Peninsula to the area near the Burmese coast.

But Secretary Gates contradicted a U.S. aid official, who said earlier the United States was considering air dropping relief supplies without permission into Burma, also known as Myanmar.

"I cannot imagine us going in without the permission of the Myanmar government," he said.

The United States already has a small task force in Thailand for the exercise that could be used for a relief effort, including six large transport planes. Secretary Gates says U.S. forces provided life-saving aid after several recent Asian disasters, and it would be unfortunate if they were not allowed to provide the same type of help this time.

"There is an opportunity here to save a lot of lives," he said. "And 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."

In addition to the ability to deliver relief supplies by airplane, helicopter and ship, one of the U.S. ships has a 600-bed hospital on board.

Secretary Gates was asked whether Burma's leaders might be reluctant to accept aid if it comes on U.S. military transports, fearing the American troops might try to overthrow their government.

"I'd be surprised if they misinterpreted our intentions that badly," said Secretary Gates.

Burma's reclusive government has declined offers of help from many countries, but Secretary Gates says if Burmese leaders can be convinced to accept help from certain countries or international organizations, the United States would probably be willing to work through those groups.

"My belief would be that if we can not get in directly that we would be prepared to work creatively with others in any way we could to help," he said. "I think our interest here is totally non-political. It's to try and help the people of Myanmar."

The United States has donated $3.25 million to international organizations that are working to send aid to Burma.

The first two international aid flights since the cyclone hit on Saturday arrived in Burma on Thursday, under United Nations auspices. But experts say much more aid is needed for the estimated one million or more people hurt or left without food and shelter by the storm.