WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Bush called on Myanmar's military junta on Tuesday to allow the United States to provide disaster assistance after a devastating cyclone.
"The United States has made an initial aid contribution but we want to do a lot more," Bush said in the Oval Office. "We're prepared to move U.S. Navy assets to help find those who have lost their lives, to help find the missing, to help stabilize the situation. But in order to do so, the military junta must allow our disaster assessment teams into the country."
The death toll from Tropical Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar, also known as Burma, has soared above 22,000. The storm hit the Southeast Asian country early Saturday with winds of up to 120 mph. Hundreds of thousands of people have been left homeless.
"So our message is to the military rulers: let the United States come and help you help the people," Bush said.
First lady Laura Bush on Monday also appeared to link the provision of additional aid, beyond an initial infusion of $250,000 from a U.S. Embassy emergency fund, to entry permission for the assessment team.
But White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said Tuesday that additional help is not conditional on the regime allowing the assessment team in. The government's permission would just allow "more aid, more quickly," mostly because it would allow the two ships in the region to use their considerable loads of emergency supplies to help, he said.
"I'd say there's multiple tracks," Johndroe said, referring to ways that the U.S. could help, with or without cooperation from Myanmar's military dictatorship. One option is to funnel all aid through non-governmental organizations already working on the ground.
The U.S. Embassy in Myanmar is immediately providing $250,000 in aid from an existing emergency fund to humanitarian organizations working on the ground, Mrs. Bush said.
In France, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner also expressed regret over Myanmar's policy on international aid, saying the country insists only on aid that the government would distribute itself and has spurned French as well as U.S. offers of personnel.
The country's modus operandi is "not a good way of doing things," said Kouchner, the co-founder of French aid group Doctors Without Borders, said he himself had applied for a visa to travel to Myanmar to help coordinate, but was highly doubtful it would be granted.
France has so far proposed $309,200 in aid. "It's not a lot but we don't really trust the way the Burmese ministry would use the money," he said.
President Bush spoke at a ceremony where he signed legislation awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi.
"This is a fitting tribute to a courageous woman who speaks for freedom for all the people of Burma and who speaks in such a way that she's a powerful voice, in contrast to the junta that currently rules the country," Bush said.
His wife, Laura, who has made the push for democracy in Myanmar a personal cause, attended the ceremony.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)