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Aid arrives as tsunami toll tops 135,000


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Aid arrives as tsunami toll tops 135,000




Friday, December 31, 2004 Posted: 1:23 PM EST (1823 GMT)



BANDA ACEH, Indonesia (CNN) -- For the first time since a devastating tsunami swept across southern Asia killing more than 135,000, people in some devastated, remote regions of Indonesia saw the arrival of aid workers -- and welcomed them as heroes.



It was their first sign that the world had not forgotten about them, said Sabine Rens of Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders).


"We just touched down, got out of the helicopter, and people started running toward us, shaking our hands, saying 'Oh my God,'" she told CNN on Friday. "This woman fell into my arms and started crying."


Her group made it to two coastal areas Friday, Rens said -- merely dots on the huge landscape of destruction.


Numerous organizations have sent crews to the region, where the death toll is likely to climb as more information comes in from remote areas.


U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called it "an unprecedented global catastrophe."


U.N. officials said Thursday the international community had pledged a combined half a billion dollars in support, and that figure jumped to more than $800 million Friday when the United States raised its contribution from $35 million to $350 million. (Full story)


But officials warned Friday that logjams of supplies at Asian airports and a lack of fuel were threatening to hinder the massive aid effort. (Full story)


In areas near Medan, Indonesia, soldiers distributed necessities. But dwindling fuel supplies meant they could not reach some areas.


Many of these soldiers themselves lost wives and children in the massive tidal waves, spawned by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake.


The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said Friday it would begin an emergency airlift on Sunday to Indonesia that should get "urgently needed supplies" to 100,000 people in Aceh province.


"We will be immediately providing shelter material for about one-fifth of the estimated affected population, but this is just the start of our operation," U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers said in a written statement.


A U.S. military C-130 cargo plane landed Friday in Sri Lanka to distribute clean water. Members of all branches of the U.S. military are taking part in the mission. Several said they expected to travel to the Maldives, where 46 deaths were reported.


U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell planned to meet Friday with Annan to discuss U.S. assistance to the region. Powell and President George W. Bush's brother Jeb, governor of Florida, will lead a U.S. mission to the region Sunday. (Full story)


As workers and news crews arrived in washed out, flattened areas -- villages and towns that just a week ago were filled with people and homes -- they saw striking signs of the will to survive.


People, some barely clothed, picked through rubble for food, supplies, anything they could get their hands on to get by.


In Indonesia alone, about 80,000 deaths have been reported; the death toll in Sri Lanka is about 41,000. India and Thailand account for thousands more deaths.


In Sri Lanka, perils are hampering aid. After more than two decades of civil war have already ravaged large parts of the country, including the north and east, controlled by Tamil Tiger rebels.


Untold numbers of land mines have been planted, and the tsunami washed many up, leaving them scattered.


Rebels have established a virtual clamp-down on the region, warning everyone to avoid side streets and stick to only a few major roads that leaders are trying to secure. No one can enter without going through rebel checkpoints.


The water and air are contaminated, local leaders warn, adding to health concerns that already existed for visitors to the region. Inoculations are needed to enter.


In southern parts of Sri Lanka controlled by the government, more than 50 flights have arrived carrying food, water, and medicine.


Sri Lankan officials have said they are coordinating with Tamil Tigers to get supplies to rebel-controlled areas, although some rebel leaders have accused the government of neglecting the areas.


Other nations and international aid groups want to send another 100 flights full of supplies, but the government has said it just doesn't have the room to handle so many planes at once.


Thousands of people in the country are living in Buddhist temples and churches.


They share remarkable stories of survival. One man said when the waves hit he took shelter in a tree, clinging to branches for days as the water remained high. He eventually fell down, fracturing his leg.


He counts himself among the lucky ones -- he was reunited with his family.


Others in the shelters recount having been in their boats in the harbor when the tsunami struck, saying they were tossed around like toys, but miraculously did not drown.


Chip Lyons with UNICEF told CNN that his organization's teams in the region still "have to get a handle" on the survival needs. They have begun distributing tablets that mix with water and help cure diarrhea -- which he called the number one cause of preventable death among children after such disasters.


High-protein biscuits and powdered milk "loaded with nutrients" are on their way in as well.


There's also a focus on the tremendous trauma faced by people in the region, particularly children. Aid groups will work to reconnect young people with extended family members or others who can take care of them, and will bring them together with other children.


Lyons said that at this time even a simple game of kickball and makeshift classrooms could go a long way toward establishing some semblance of normalcy.


Amid the devastation, Friday brought a glimmer of hope. In some places, as the new year arrived, people broke into celebrations -- in Sri Lanka, they violated a national day of mourning that banned such events.


But thoughts for tsunami victims tempered normally joyous New Year's Eve festivities, as several major cities canceled parties and Australia held a minute of silence. (Full story)


At one refugee camp in Dodangoda, thousands danced and sang. Several said it reflected their hope that the coming year will, and must, be better.


CNN correspondents Hugh Riminton in Colombo, Sri Lanka; Satinder Bindra in Galle, Sri Lanka; Atika Shubert and Mike Chinoy in Banda Aceh, Indonesia; Aneesh Raman and Matthew Chance near Phuket, Thailand; Suhasini Haidar in Chennai, India; Ram Ramgopal in Nagappattinam, India; and journalist Iqbal Athas in Sri Lanka contributed to this report.








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