Vast aid effort finally delivers help to worst-affected regions

After a week of starvation and isolation, help finally arrived for survivors in the areas worst hit by the Asian tsunami as a vast international aid operation began yesterday.

Military helicopters were besieged by hungry mobs when they attempted to distribute food and water for the first time in villages along the devastated north-west coast of Sumatra in Indonesia.

The number of victims in urgent need of food across the region was put at 1.8 million. But despite the growing pace of the relief effort, the UN said it would be days before the 1 million people needing food in Indonesia's Aceh province would be reached.

The UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, described the aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami as the "largest disaster we have had to deal with" as the official death toll rose to almost 130,000.

Dozens of sorties were being flown by helicopters from the US, Australia, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia while flotillas of naval vessels, including an American aircraft carrier group, sailed into the region. The Ministry of Defence pondered whether to deploy British ground troops while 1,500 US Marines were due to arrive in Sri Lanka on an amphibious assault vessel.

Washington appears willing to help Jakarta rebuild the ruined province, presumably hoping to gain more influence in the world's largest Muslim nation and a hotbed of Islamist extremism. But as the meagre consignments of dried noodles, biscuits and energy drinks dropped from American Sea Hawk helicopters were leapt upon by desperate villagers, the UN warned that logistical problems were still hampering aid efforts and disease could yet claim 50,000 more lives.

The UN's children's fund, Unicef, said it was receiving reports of infants dying from pneumonia in Aceh while other aid agencies warned that waterborne diseases were spreading. Jorgen Poulsen, the head of the Danish Red Cross in the devastated provincial capital of Banda Aceh, said: "We are sitting on a ticking time bomb. We hope we can avoid cholera. The problem is we have already seen people vomiting in town."

The UN predicted the death toll would reach 150,000. The number of British lives confirmed lost rose to 40.

Organisers of the international relief operation said a surge of pledges heralding the new year had brought the international fund to $2bn (£1.1bn).

Japan announced over the weekend that it was sending $500m. Washington earlier increased its contribution tenfold to $350m. Last night Canada doubled its aid to $66m and the World Bank said it expects to "double or triple" its $250m.

In the Russian town of Beslan, where 330 people - half of them children - were killed in a school hostage drama in September, families announced they would donate £18,000 to the tsunami victims. The Disasters Emergency Committee, the coalition of 12 charities leading Britain's appeal for private donations, said its phone lines were "extremely busy". The weekend total of £60m will be updated tomorrow.

While the money rolled in, the focus shifted to its delivery to the ravaged coasts of the Indian Ocean.

A plane chartered by Save The Children and carrying aid for 37,000 families left Stansted airport for Sri Lanka.

The authorities in Indonesia, where more than half the 129,817 known victims of the disaster perished, said that 100,000 people across Aceh living in temporary shelters and camps were now receiving aid.

Jan Egeland, the UN official in charge of emergency relief, said: "Overall I am more optimistic today than I was yesterday that the global community will be able to face up to this enormous challenge."

In Sri Lanka, where the death toll rose to 29,744, the UN said food supplies would reach the 700,000 people needing them within three days despite monsoon conditions and flooding along the southern and eastern coasts.

The increased financial response of the White House coincided with a show of American military and diplomatic muscle across the disaster zone, with a 12-strong squadron of navy helicopters from the aircraft carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln, joining the relief effort. In the largest US operation in south Asia since the Vietnam war, pilots and troops were sent to deliver aid and conduct reconnaissance missions along Sumatra's north-west coast, much of which has been isolated since the earthquake struck.

Captain Larry Burt, the commander of a helicopter wing on the Abraham Lincoln, said: "I've never seen anything like this. We've seen bodies 20 miles out to sea. You just cannot describe it."

The American Secretary of State, Colin Powell, and President George Bush's brother, Jeb, the Governor of Florida, were due to leave overnight for Thailand and Indonesia to see the devastation. But while the military helicopters in Indonesia began the long task of distributing hundreds of tons of supplies backed up in Aceh's congested airports, chaotic scenes meant some deliveries had to be aborted.

A spokesman for the World Food Programme in Banda Aceh said: "A few helicopters have tried to land in the coastal villages of Banda Aceh but mobs on the ground desperate for the supplies prevented them from landing."

Even as badly needed supplies trickled in, the scale of the long-term rebuilding effort required became clearer. Officials in Calang, a town of 10,000 people to the south of Banda Aceh where up to 70 per cent of the population were killed, said it would have to be abandoned. Alwi Shihab, an Indonesian cabinet minister visiting the town, said: "It's not going to be a living area any more."

Mr Annan, speaking before a conference this week on the tsunami aftermath, said it would take up to a decade to restore the region.

The situation in Aceh was further complicated by claims from pro-independence groups that the Indonesian military has used the disaster to intensify its campaign against separatist rebels.

The Free Aceh Movement, which has announced a unilateral ceasefire, claimed soldiers were being sent for military operations under guise of the relief effort. Three rebels were killed on Saturday and five arrested during a claimed attack on an aid convoy. Indonesian military commanders confirmed that counter-insurgency measures were continuing but insisted that two-thirds of troops had been reassigned to coping with the aftermath of the disaster.

Across the disaster zone, aid organisations and governments confirmed they were calling off the search for survivors.

On India's Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where the authorities have been criticised for a slow response in reaching communities, officials claimed supplies had been dropped to all parts of the archipelago. But aid agencies said the interiors of many of the islands were still cut off and the official toll of 5,400 missing could be higher.

The Thai authorities predicted that the death toll along the country's southern coast could reach 8,000, including an estimated 2,230 foreigners.

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