Groups Seek OK for Indian Islands Relief

Published December 31, 2004

| Associated Press

International aid groups sought permission to go deep into India's remote Andaman and Nicobar islands (search), the last tsunami blind spot where casualties are feared in the thousands. But Indian authorities on Friday said they had not yet given approval.

India has officially reported just more than 7,000 dead in the earthquake-tsunami disaster, but that does not include a complete count in the island territories, where officials estimate as many as 10,000 people could be buried under mud and debris.

So far relief operations in the remote islands — just northwest of the quake's epicenter — have been limited to Indian officials and local volunteers.

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"We would like to be invited to join the relief effort, and to be part of any helicopter or boat trip to the area," an official with the Paris-based Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) said at a government news conference on Thursday.

International humanitarian group Oxfam (search) also requested entry, but Lt. Gov. Ram Kapse, administrator of the federally governed territory said no decision has been made.

"We have not decided yet," Kapse said Friday, adding that four Indian volunteer groups have been allowed to travel to those islands.

Entry to foreigners is prohibited in most of the hundreds of islands scattered over some 4,350 miles in the Bay of Bengal (search), and even Indians need special permits to travel there.

Some 40 percent of the densely forested area is designated as a tribal reserve where indigenous people live; the remaining is a protected area for wood cultivation.

Access to the remote areas is only possible through planes or navy ships that are going from island to island to rescue people and ferry supplies. Nearly all the jetties in the islands had been smashed by the waves and rescue parties were using small wood and rubber boats to land.

"It is important for the international agencies to work very closely and coordinate with the government of India," Steve Hollingworth, head of international aid group CARE in India, told The Associated Press.

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