Asia Crisis

Myanmar accuses France of sending 'warship'

UNITED NATIONS, May 16 (Reuters) - Myanmar's U.N. envoy accused France on Friday of sending a "warship" towards the cyclone-ravaged country, a charge the French ambassador to the United Nations vehemently rejected.

French Ambassador Jean-Maurice Ripert said the heated exchange came as he addressed the U.N. General Assembly after a speech by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who spoke of no progress in increasing U.N. access to the many victims of Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar who are desperately in need of aid.

"I was interrupted after my first sentence by the ambassador of Myanmar, who denounced the fact that France was sending a warship to Burma," Ripert told reporters after the meeting. "It's not true."

Ripert said the ship in question is operated by the French navy but is not a warship. It is carrying 1,500 metric tons of food and medicine as well as small boats to reach the flooded Irrawaddy delta, helicopters and field hospital platforms.

Myanmar's U.N. mission said Ambassador Kyaw Tint Swe was not available for comment.

Ripert said the French ship would be off the coast of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, on Saturday but had not yet received permission to deliver aid.

Separately, the United Nations said its top humanitarian official, John Holmes, will arrive this weekend in Myanmar, where he will attempt to establish contact with its reclusive military leaders to improve U.N. access to the hardest-hit areas with up to 2.5 million survivors of the cyclone.

U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas told reporters Holmes would arrive on Sunday and would be carrying a third letter from Ban to Myanmar's senior general Than Shwe, who has repeatedly ignored Ban's requests for a conversation. (Editing by John O'Callaghan)