Page last updated at 11:24 GMT, Friday, 9 May 2008 12:24 UK

Forcing aid to Burma 'incendiary'

People waiting for cooking oil in Burma
Many people are without essential supplies

Threatening to air-drop aid into Burma without permission is "incendiary", UK International Development Secretary Douglas Alexander has said.

He was responding to a call by France for aid to be flown into cyclone-hit areas to counter Burmese leaders' reluctance to allow foreigners in.

A Downing Street spokesman said the situation was a "significant crisis".

He said the government was pressing the Burmese leadership "to address barriers to rapid access" for aid workers.

Earlier, Mr Alexander said the "best way forward" was an international "united front" to win access for aid agencies.

The Lib Dems said air drops were a "possibility" but were not efficient.

Some 23,000 people died as a result of the cyclone and tidal surge which hit Burma at the weekend. Another 1.5 million are at risk, according to the UN.

Access 'needed'

Mr Alexander told BBC 2's Newsnight that he was more interested in securing access than securing headlines with "incendiary statements".

"Our responsibility is to make sure that our sole focus is getting the aid to the people who desperately need it."

He said carrying out forced air-drops of supplies would be the wrong action to take.

"We believe that the best way forward would be for the junta to provide access, which the whole international community - including Ban Ki-moon [secretary general of the UN] - is requesting.

"That's why we've been making direct approaches, but we've also been speaking to other governments, including the government of China, urging them that there should be a united front to say that the access needs to be provided immediately."

I don't think we have any legal right to impose it [air drops] - we might have a moral obligation
Menzies Campbell
Former Liberal Democrat leader

Speaking on BBC1's Question Time, Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell also said forced drops would be counterproductive.

"The danger of going down this route ... is you could have military action happening which would stop help getting to people," he said.

Victims would also be put in a difficult position when accepting foreign aid when their own government had not permitted it, he added.

Former Lib Dem leader Sir Menzies Campbell said air drops were a "possibility" because of the scale of the disaster, but were not the most efficient way of distributing supplies.

"I don't think we have any legal right to impose it - we might have a moral obligation.

Who is going to be at the receiving end of the air drops? It could be the Burmese army
Michael Heseltine
Former Conservative deputy prime minister

"But I don't believe we could give effect to that moral obligation for this reason - Burma is essentially a state run by the generals with an extremely powerful army.

"Any effort to impose humanitarian aid might well be the subject of resistance which would have the effect of damaging yet more of the people of that blighted country."

Former Conservative deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine said air drops should only be considered if they could be guaranteed to be effective.

"Who is going to be at the receiving end of the air drops? It could be the Burmese army. It could be the very people least affected by the tragedy that is going on."

France argues air drops without permission could be allowed under a UN "responsibility to protect" mandate and it wants to raise the crisis in Burma at the UN Security Council.

The British government has so far pledged 5m in aid to help with the aftermath of the disaster.

Seventeen Britons in Burma are still unaccounted for after the cyclone hit the country on Saturday.

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