An unprecedented global aid operation gathered steam Sunday to save survivors of Asia's tsunamis amid signs of disease after the disaster that claimed more than 127,000 lives.
Aid workers fear that more people could die from disease outbreaks
On the one-week anniversary of one of the world's worst natural disasters, relief workers said they were beginning to get through a logjam at wiped-out air strips to reach a million needy people in the devastated Indonesian province of Aceh.
"Things are improving. The backlog is starting to clear," Michael Elmquist, the chief of the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Indonesia, told AFP.
The United States said it would deploy up to 1,500 marines for tsunami relief in Sri Lanka after sending 17 Navy helicopters to Aceh, some of which were swarmed by hungry survivors.
"It's absolutely life saving," Elmquist said of the US mission in Aceh. "We are absolutely thrilled that Americans are doing that. They are the only ones who have the capacity to reach those parts of the population right now."
Ahead of a crisis summit in the Indonesian capital Jakarta on Thursday, countries rushed to top each other's pledges with Japan offering $500 million (€370 million) to tsunami victims and Taiwan raising its contribution to $50 million, bringing the total above $2 billion.
5-10 Year Setback
A Sri Lankan girl negotiates wreckage at a refugee camp in Pillai in the rebel-controlled northern part of Sri Lanka.
But the massive scale of the human tragedy remains daunting and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said it could take five to 10 years to reconstruct from the titanic wall of water that tore apart the Indian Ocean coastlines on Dec. 26.
In Aceh, which was closest to the epicenter of the deep-sea quake which registered 9.0 on the Richter scale, volunteers desperately tried to bury thousands of corpses rotting in tropical temperatures in hopes of curbing the spread of disease.
Agoes Kooshartoro, who leads about 100 Indonesian Red Crescent volunteers in Aceh, said many people were suffering disease, particularly of the lungs, after the tsunamis swept away the sanitation infrastructure.
"Over the past five days many people have died because of this. They survived the waves, but they died of infections and breathing failure. There are many stories like that and we have seen such incidents," he said.
The World Health Organization said it was also seeing growing reports of potentially deadly diarrhea outbreaks in displacement camps in Sri Lanka and India.
"It needs a few more days before we can state that we are confident that we've been able to avoid major outbreaks of disease," David Nabarro, the top WHO official dealing with humanitarian crises, told reporters in Geneva.
"You have serious water-carrying diseases such as dysentery as a ticking time bomb," said Jorgen Poulsen, chief of the Danish Red Cross in Banda Aceh. "We hope we can avoid cholera. The problem is we have already seen people vomiting in town."
Relief effort divisive
US Secretary of State Colin Powell is due to head to the region to take part in the Jakarta disaster relief summit which will also include Annan, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Australian Prime Minister John Howard. But Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra of Thailand, another hard-hit country, said Sunday without explanation that he may not attend the Jakarta summit as he went on a new tour of the devastated resort island of Phuket.
France, meanwhile, said it would coordinate all European relief efforts for the tsunamis.
Soldiers line up to unload relief supplies from a cargo plane in Banda Aceh Saturday.
Annan, speaking on the US network ABC, said he had not spoken since the disaster to US President George W. Bush amid speculation of a rift over whether the UN or Washington would spearhead the monumental aid effort.
"I've spoken to other leaders around the world, including the Chinese, and they all want to accept the UN leadership and they want to work with us," Annan said. "This is the largest disaster we have had to deal with," Annan said, underlining "the sheer complexity" of the relief effort spread over a dozen nations.
Sri Lanka said it had confirmed 29,729 dead from the tidal waves, while more than 16,000 people were injured. In Thailand the death toll was Sunday revised down slightly to 4,798 as several bodies had been double counted. Some 2,402 foreigners were listed among those who died, official data showed. The exact toll, however, will likely never be known, with the United Nations saying the number of people killed may be around 150,000.
"We will continue to search for the dead and bury them as well as to search for any survivors -- no matter how slim the chances are of still finding a survivor," said Basuki, the Indonesian colonel.
Residents reach out for food packets being distributed by a group of businessmen from Bangalore in Nagappattinam, India.
On the ground in Thailand, teams began the macabre process of taking samples from the bodies which have been collected from the destroyed beaches and buildings. Teeth are removed so they can be compared to the victim's dental X-rays while a small piece of the body's femur bone is also taken for DNA testing -- a service China has offered to provide for free.
Medical teams from Britain, France, Germany, Portugal, Austria, Italy, the Netherlands and Belgian were struggling to identify 57 corpses of foreign nationals in Sri Lanka. The A.F. Raymond funeral undertakers said out of the 89 bodies brought to them, 32 were positively identified and repatriated or cremated here according to the wishes of the next of kin.
"There are forensic teams from almost all European nations taking DNA samples and copies of dental structures," Aubrey Raymond told AFP. "Among the unidentified bodies are six children not more than five years (old)."
Relief operations were particularly difficult in the eastern Sri Lankan area of Ampara where flash floods Saturday displaced another 30,000 people in a district where 160,000 people were already displaced by the tsunamis. Aid trickled through to Sri Lanka's battered south but at levels far below what is required. Crucial food shipments were arriving irregularly, sparking scuffles put under control by armed police.