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U.S. helicopters stand by, ready to aid Myanmar

The U.S. military said Friday it is keeping 22 helicopters on standby in case Myanmar's ruling junta reverses its rejection of such help for cyclone victims, saying the aircraft could ferry emergency supplies to most survivors within three days.

Myanmar's government, meanwhile, lashed out at its own citizens and foreign media for what it called distorted coverage of the aftermath of the devastating storm a month ago. It said the country's image had been tarnished by false claims that aid isn't getting to people.

U.N. officials and aid groups have criticized the regime for hindering aid work, which they say has kept enough food, water and shelter from reaching some 1 million desperate survivors.

The top U.N. humanitarian official, John Holmes, said in New York there are now “relatively few people” who have not received any sort of help, but he stressed that “this aid effort needs to be stepped up further.”

“I think people are getting to all the main places, although it's not always as easy as it should be,” Holmes said. “There's no evidence of starvation at the moment, although as I say many people are still in significant need of aid.”

The new offer of U.S. military help came after four Navy ships loaded with helicopters and relief supplies sailed away Thursday from the coast of Myanmar, where they had been on station for three weeks in hope of getting permission to provide assistance.

Prospects that the offer would be accepted appeared slim, especially as Myanmar's military regime has begun exhibiting heightened sensitivity over foreign perceptions of the crisis.

The U.N. estimates a total of 2.4 million people were affected when Cyclone Nargis hit May 2-3, and warns that more than 1 million of those still need help, mostly in the hard-to-reach Irrawaddy delta.

“Of the 1 million or 1.5 million people in need of relief support, we think that between 450,000 to 750,000 are in emergency need,” said Lt. Gen. John Goodman, commander of Marine Forces Pacific and head of the U.S. relief operation for Myanmar.

They could be reached “over the course of a three-day period” by American helicopters and landing craft, he said in a telephone interview from a temporary U.S. staging area at Utapao, Thailand.

Goodman said the junta was “still considering” the offer, which would include allowing Myanmar officials aboard all U.S. helicopters to monitor their routes and to unload relief supplies.