In Sri Lanka, volunteers are battling to deliver aid to the desperate

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The Independent Online

A lack of co-ordination is hampering the Sri Lankan disaster relief effort, according to volunteers struggling to deliver vital supplies to the island's devastated coastal communities.

Despite government claims that plenty of food, medicine and water were getting through to the worst-affected areas, out-reach teams spoke of lorryloads of aid stranded miles away from thousands of needy people.

Meanwhile, aircraft packed with relief materials from abroad were stuck at the international airport due to a lack of transport facilities and other organisational problems.

As the country prepared to observe a memorial day for the more than 20,000 people it has lost, complaints mounted that the emergency operation was in chaos.

Volunteers who had been sent to deliver aid to the shattered town of Galle on the southern tip of the island yesterday said that 75 trucks were stuck on the road into the area.

And to the north, Tamil Tiger leaders claimed they were not being given any aid from the national government for the part of the country they control. The Sri Lankan military, however, claimed it was the Tigers who were turning back lorries which were bound for an area where many thousands were missing. The move, it claimed, was aimed at securing international rather than Sri Lankan aid.

The situation of apparent chaos was typified by an operation set up in the shadow of Colombo's opulent Plaza Hotel. Pamela Podoro, a Canadian living in Sri Lanka, and a group of volunteers sprung into action immediately after disaster struck.

Their attempts to send lorryloads of medical supplies and other vital materials were swiftly backed by the Sri Lankan Red Cross (SLRC). Volunteer numbers swelled as tourists from a neighbouring hotel saw the Red Cross's appeals for help and signed up. However, with outreach teams being dispatched across the country, the relationship soured over strategy differences and the SLRC removed its support. Volunteers were immediately told to remove their Red Cross bibs.

The Podoro group and others are having extreme difficulty getting supplies directly into the hands of those who need it most. There are continued reports of looting in the south and east of the country. Teams dispatched to the Galle area earlier this week reported that as many as 75 lorryloads of aid were backed up outside the town.

Mrs Podoro said: "We are doing our best to get clean water, food and medicines to communities ...hit first by the sea and now threatened by disease. But it is not proving easy."

Yesterday, aid was finally reaching the inhabitants of Galle, but refugees were still drinking water from broken pipes by the roadside. A priest at Galle Cathedral said that aid reaching the town was coming from local sources rather than the government.

The problem of distribution is equally severe in the north and east. Volunteers who had been tourists inland at Kandy made their way to the town of Trincomalee and took responsibility for aid packages.

However, getting the supplies to stricken communities proved to be more difficult. First came conflicting information about which villages were most in need. It then became clear that the access roads to many of these villages could not be passed by the large lorries, or by the bus which the volunteers were travelling in.

"The net result of bad information and a lack of co-ordination is that truckloads of aid are just sitting around this country waiting to be delivered,'' said a German volunteer.