Sri Lanka Struggles to Aid Victims

Published December 29, 2004

| Associated Press

Trucks and cargo planes ferried food, drinking water and medical supplies Wednesday to some of the 1 million Sri Lankans left homeless by the massive Asian tsunami (search), amid reports that some supplies were being hijacked.

Hopes dimmed of finding more survivors from Sunday's enormous tidal waves as the country's official death toll rose to nearly 22,493. Officials said bloated corpses were still being dragged out from debris, rivers and lagoons.

In a gesture to Sri Lanka's separatist Tamil Tiger (search) rebels, the government said it had offered help "without discrimination," and invited guerrilla leaders to coordinate relief efforts with a committee appointed by President Chandrika Kumaratunga (search).

"The biggest problem we are facing right now is the disposal of dead bodies and coordinating the relief efforts to reach the most affected areas," said Migel Bermeo, head of the United Nations' agencies in Colombo.

Reports of measles and diarrhea were beginning to reach health authorities, causing concerns about an epidemic, said Thilak Ranaviraj, the government's top official handling relief efforts.

"The most important thing is the quality of water," he said.

Bodies were hurriedly buried after being photographed and fingerprinted when possible, he added.

In the southern city of Galle (search) — the country's second largest — nearly all homes within about a kilometer (half a mile) of the coast were destroyed or damaged. The city was suffering food shortages as shaken refugees crowded into churches, mosques and Buddhist temples.

"Even those people who were not affected can't get food. Nothing is available," said Father Raja Perera of St. Mary's Roman Catholic church.

Bandages, antibiotics, tents and blankets donated by India, France, Russia and others were being sent from the capital, Colombo, to the northeastern and southern coasts, said the government's Disaster Management Unit.

The tsunamis were triggered by a huge earthquake off Indonesia, about 1,500 kilometers (1,000 miles) from Sri Lanka. Giant waves also slammed into Thailand, Myanmar, southern India, Malaysia and the Maldives, and struck as far away as Africa's northeastern coast.

Four aircraft — one a flying surgical hospital from Finland — arrived in Colombo with relief, said Bandula Jayasekara, spokesman for the International Federation of Red Cross.

A German aircraft brought water purification equipment, a British plane had logistical support teams and a Japanese aircraft carried in doctors and medicine. India sent ships and helicopters to carry thousands of packs of blankets, saris, buckets, pots and pans.

Twelve trucks with rice, lentils and sugar headed for the country's southern and eastern coasts on Tuesday from a U.N. World Food Program (search) depot in Colombo.

But officials in the east said at least four trucks bound for minority ethnic Tamil areas in the north were forcefully diverted by majority Sinhalese mobs, and low-ranking government officials, to predominantly Sinhalese areas.

A WFP spokeswoman, Selvi Sachchithanandam, declined to comment on the report. Another 25-30 trucks were to be dispatched in the next day, she said.

The military said trucks with rice, sugar, tents and other essentials entered the Tamil area Wednesday. Military spokesman Brig. Daya Ratnayake said more trucks were to be sent soon.

Earlier, the Tamil guerrillas accused the government of discrimination and appealed for direct international aid through its overseas officers.

The Tamil Rehabilitation Organization (search) asked for milk powder, kitchen utensils, 100,000 mats, clothes, pain relievers, antibiotics, dressings and water purification tablets.

It estimated that more than US$2 million (euro1.47 million) is needed to deal with the calamity in the north, controlled by Tamil rebels.

An International Committee for the Red Cross (search) flight from Nairobi was also expected Wednesday with 29,000 emergency kits, said spokesman Sukumar Rockwood.

Dozens of countries have rushed medical teams to help with what the United Nations has called its biggest relief effort.

Russia said a third relief plane was scheduled to fly from Moscow to Colombo on Thursday.

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