U.S. helicopters cause stir in Thai town on Burma border

In Mae Sot, home to many Burmese exiles and refugees, two helicopters stopped unannounced during a survey of the area

In this border town known as "Little Burma," thousands of Burmese exiles and refugees were excited when they saw a US helicopter flying above them on Saturday, within view of Burmese soldiers staging a referendum across the Moei River.

"All the Burmese looked up at the sky in hope," said Myo Khin, a Burmese trader who just found out from his sister that their relatives were lost in their hometown of Lapputa in the Irrawaddy delta. "Only America and the foreign countries can save Burma now."

Local excitement grew on Sunday as another US helicopter flew into Mae Sot's tiny airport, which stopped serving commercial flights last year. The airstrip is just 1.5 miles from the Friendship Bridge to the Burmese town of Myawaddy.

Their sighting jibes with reports that the US has moved ships and aircraft into position to support a humanitarian mission in the country.

A trip Sunday afternoon to the airport found eight US crewmen in uniforms pumping fuel from one US helicopter, inscribed with "24 Marines" on the body and "EP" on the tail, to another US helicopter, labeled "25 Marines."

"They were here on a survey of the area, and they ran out of gas," explained a Thai airport official in the lobby. "One crew had to wait here overnight for another helicopter to come today and bring them gas."

The official, and a uniformed Thai Air Force officer, said the choppers came unannounced from U-Tapao airbase in Chonburi Province on Thailand's east coast, on the other side of the country from Mae Sot. "They have been on joint military exercises called Cobra Gold with the Thai Air Force."

No security officers manned the airport gates Sunday. "We have never hosted American soldiers here before," said the official, as airport staff posed for photos with the airmen. "We didn't know what to do with them."

Local residents and foreign aid workers said they saw the clean-cut US soldiers out of uniform wandering downtown on Saturday night with a Thai Air Force guide. "They introduced themselves as members of the US Air Force," said a Western volunteer worker. "They said they were looking for a place to stay."

Many Burmese in Mae Sot said the airmen would be welcomed. "Everybody in Burma requests America 'Come on! Come on,' " said Mr. Khin. "America is very famous. They control the world. Burma is very small. I want to talk to Mr. George Bush. What are you doing? United Nations, what are you doing? We have no food, no water. This is the worst government in the world. Same as Saddam Hussein. Why you cannot help us?"

Mae Sot would be a logical jumping off point for US helicopters going into the Burmese delta. Pilots could fly through the same valley as the Asian Friendship Highway, which runs north to Rangoon.

Due to resistance by the Burmese junta, the only aid the US has provided directly to the country is relief supplies flown by a US military plane. Helicopters were also being used to provide "logistical support" for the operation. Members of the US Marine Corps' 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, based in Japan, were working with US Air Force and Navy personnel to prepare relief. The USS Essex, based in the Gulf of Thailand, was serving as a lift point to ferry supplies ultimately intended for Burma. For now, military officials say military airplanes will probably be used for whatever direct US aid comes next. Helicopters, which are naturally more effective for getting to more remote areas, may follow.

"If we see anything, the next step is to be more C-130 flights going in," says Maj. Stewart Upton, a spokesman at the Pentagon. "We continue to prepare for such approval to get those helicopter flights in there, but so far, nothing yet."

Staff writer Gordon Lubold contributed from Washington, D.C.

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