May 16, 2008 / 7:10 PM / 11 years ago

Myanmar accuses France of sending 'warship'

(Adds details, quotes, Ban; paragraphs 7-11)

By Louis Charbonneau

UNITED NATIONS, May 16 (Reuters) - Myanmar’s U.N. envoy accused France on Friday of sending a warship toward the cyclone-ravaged country, while the French ambassador said the military junta was on the verge of a "crime against humanity".

French envoy Jean-Maurice Ripert said the two men had a heated exchange as he addressed the U.N. General Assembly. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also spoke, reporting no progress in increasing U.N. access to the many victims of Cyclone Nargis 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. "It’s not true."

Ripert said the ship 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 helicopters and field hospital platforms to reach the flooded Irrawaddy delta.

Myanmar’s U.N. 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.

"We are still trying to convince the authority of Burma to authorize us to go there," Ripert said. "The ship will be off the coast of the delta, but in international waters, tomorrow. We still hope they will not refuse that."

He said the situation was shifting from a humanitarian disaster "to a situation that could lead to some true crime against humanity" in which hundreds of thousands of lives could be in jeopardy.

RESPONSIBILITY TO PROTECT

France has called on U.N. member states to invoke a little-used concept known as the "responsibility to protect" based on a 2005 U.N. resolution that was originally conceived to deal with war crimes and genocide.

Ripert said the U.N. Security Council should authorize countries to provide aid to Myanmar’s people. But China, Russia, Vietnam and South Africa oppose council involvement in what they say is a humanitarian, not a political issue.

Separately, the United Nations said its top humanitarian official, John Holmes, will arrive on Sunday in Myanmar to try to establish contact with its reclusive military leaders. The aim is 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 said Holmes was 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 Alan Elsner)




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