The biggest relief operation in history, but it's still just a trickle

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The Independent Online

One of the biggest disaster relief operations in history kicked into action yesterday as a US aircraft battle group landed on the battered shores of Sumatra.

One of the biggest disaster relief operations in history kicked into action yesterday as a US aircraft battle group landed on the battered shores of Sumatra.

Hundreds of survivors crowded at the airport of the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, to watch the arrival of five US Sea Hawk helicopters, Singaporean military Super Puma choppers, and Australian and Indonesian Hercules transports.

US and British ships, carrying water-purifying equipment and other vital supplies, were heading for Sri Lanka, meanwhile, and a former staging base for B-52 bombers in Thailand roared with the take-offs and landings of giant cargo planes.

But while some of the survivors driven from their homes by the disaster now have enough to eat, there have been complaints from other affected areas that almost nothing has got through in six days. The problems of fetching supplies for the stricken have been compounded by the washed-out roads and collapsed bridges left behind by the floods, and by the shortage of fuel.

In Lampaya, 15 miles from Banda Aceh, Taiwanese doctors dispensed medicine to the sick. Children played together outside neatly arranged tents. Food, while not plentiful, was arriving daily.

"The food is a bit boring, mostly noodles and rice - but it hasn't stopped coming yet," said Abdullah Burhandi, one of 1,200 refugees at the camp.

But in Bireun, about 60 miles east of Banda Aceh, Riswan Ali, a villager who acts as an aid co-ordinator for the village, said that 18,000 refugees there had received only one aid delivery. "We need water. Our children our sick, they need food and medicine," he said.

Survivors on the remote Andaman and Nicobar islands are now suffering from hunger, deprivation and the threat from snakes and crocodiles.

Refugees arriving at the capital, Port Blair, rely on the local administration even for clothing. Everything they own was destroyed by the tsunami - homes, property and entire villages - even their clothes were ripped from their backs by the water. There is seething anger at the Delhi government, which turned down international offers of help, saying that India could cope.

In Sri Lanka, a World Food Programme spokeswoman said she had heard of food shortages among survivors due to poor distribution, but not starvation. "We have tons of food. We are, in fact, inundated," said the spokeswoman, Selvi Sachithanandam. The problem, was a "lack of channels" to get the food to quake victims in outlying areas.

The situation was similar in southern India. "There is no shortage of supplies. Food, water, medicine and clothes are all there in abundance," said Shantha Sheela Nair, secretary of rural development in battered Tamil Nadu.

In the Thai resort island of Phuket, most people affected by the tsunami have received food - fresh-cooked meals plus dried foods like instant noodles - and new and used clothing. Most also have shelter.

But Sharinee Kalayanamitr, an aid worker co-ordinating at the Phuket relief centre, said villages and other non-resort places do have shortages of water and medicines.