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Page last updated at 21:27 GMT, Saturday, 17 May 2008 22:27 UK

Eyewitness: Ship barred from Burma

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On board the US Navy aid ship

The US amphibious assault ship, USS Essex, is moored off the coast of Burma, prohibited by the military government from swinging into action to help cyclone victims. The BBC's Nick Bryant reports from aboard the ship.

"Hurry up and wait," is almost the unofficial slogan of the American military. It can be deployed with rapid speed in virtually any corner of the planet - and then wait there for days, weeks, sometimes months until given the order and opportunity to fulfil their mission.

In the choppy waters of the Andaman Sea right now, that mission carries the operation name "Caring Response", and involves a four-boat US naval task force which sits just 60 nautical miles off Burma's low-lying Irrawaddy Delta.

Helicopters loaded with aid could get there within 30 minutes. Landing craft, which sit within the bellies of these massive amphibious assault ships, would take less than an hour.

Water purifying machines, ambulances, heavy trucks, medical teams are ready for the off. Tens of thousands of gallons of life-saving drinking water are just over the horizon from the Burmese coastline.

'Ready to go'

The task force arrived here on Tuesday, having been diverted from a training exercise off the shores of nearby Thailand.

Marines and sailors aboard the USS Essex fill gallon water bladders on 16 May 2008
The USS Essex can produce gallons of fresh water itself

Publicly, the senior commanders of the task force are sanguine - surprisingly so. They stay resolutely on message - repeating over and over - that they are not seething with frustration at being so very near but essentially remaining so very far.

Their crews maintain the same detached professionalism. You wonder, though, what they must be feeling in private.

"You get used to having to wait as part of your mission and we really haven't been here that long," says US marine commander, Lieutenant Colonel Scott E. Erdelatz. "No-one here is even near their breaking point. We just want to help out and we will stay on station just a bit longer."

"Our focus is on staying ready, thinking about how to accomplish our mission. We'd like to help. No doubt about it."

"Our assumption is that if we go we'll go with the full consent of the Burmese government. That's our planning assumption right now. We carry orders and policies, so that would be something for others to decide. We just want to be ready to go," Lt Col Erdelatz says.

Suspicion and concerns

Rear Admiral Carol M. Pottenger, the commander of the task force, told me that she has been ordered to respect the sovereignty of Burma and have made no contingency plan to go in without permission from the military junta.

One of the few things that her task force does not have the capability is to conduct airdrops - that is to say attach parachutes to the pallets of aid and then drop them on communities or the countryside below.

That is not the way the US military operates. It is dangerous for a start. It is also a fairly indiscriminate way to distribute aid.

Like all the Americans, she has been struck by the inconsistency of Burma allowing in American C130 transport planes into Rangoon - over a dozen of them - but its refusal to let the aid come from offshore.

She suspects that Burma wants to control the distribution of the aid by making Rangoon the point of arrival.

But many of the roads in the Irrawaddy Delta have been washed away, and Burma does not have an adequate heavy airlift capability - which is precisely the service which the Americans can offer.

Members of this task force have been deployed in the Asian tsunami in 2004, last year's Cyclone Sidr in Bangladesh, East Timor, Cambodia, the Philippines.

One concern within the military is that future missions might be jeopardised if, on this occasion, Burma's sovereignty was ignored or flouted.

Ultimately, it is the White House and Pentagon which lay down the terms of the mission. If the humanitarian crisis worsens, which is likely, and the aid still sits offshore - which is a distinct possibility - "hurry up and wait" might no longer be an option.


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