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Asia: Concern Growing Over Slow Pace Of Tsunami Relief Operations

A powerful aftershock today hindered aid efforts for the tsunami-hit Indonesian island of Sumatra, adding to difficulties the relief operations already face. Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan toured the Maldives on the final leg of a three-nation trip to acknowledge firsthand the damage caused by the 26 December tsunami. The visit comes amid mounting concern over the slow pace of relief efforts for the tsunami survivors.

Prague, 10 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- A strong earthquake struck off Sumatra this morning as relief workers struggled to bring aid to survivors of the tsunamis that killed at least 156,000 people throughout Southeast Asia.

The 6.2 earthquake, with its epicenter some 60 kilometers southwest of Banda Aceh, the capital of Aceh province, sent panic-stricken people in the devastated city fleeing from homes and shelters. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

The aftershock came amid growing concern that an unknown number of survivors in Aceh have yet to receive any aid, more than two weeks after the tsunami.

Chris Lom, the Indonesia spokesman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said the main problems are logistical. He told RFE/RL by telephone from Banda Aceh that helicopter food drops remain the only means of reaching the west coast of the province.

"Currently, the IOM and the U.S. Navy have been working to load helicopters with food to make food drops. Over 150 sorties last week down the west coast of the province, but we are by no means sure that this is actually reaching all the population, and it is also difficult from a high-speed food drop from helicopter to really assess the long-term needs of the communities there or to assess how many people have survived," Lom said.

The IOM also said it would start a chain of road convoys from the Indonesian capital of Jakarta to Aceh to get around bottlenecks at airports in Banda Aceh and Medan, the capital of North Sumatra province.

"What the IOM is trying to do is to circumvent this congestion by running road convoys up front. Initially, we started running them from Medan and now we are running them also from Jakarta. But the logistics of upgrading the airports to handle the volume of relief materials that are coming in are really very challenging, and it could take some time for these logjams in Jakarta and Medan to work themselves out," Lom said.

Lom said despite the huge domestic and international effort, it will take a long time before the region can begin to recover.

"In terms of Aceh returning to some sort of normality is far too early to make any sort of prediction. Bodies are still being extracted from underneath the debris even in Banda Aceh, which was the first point in which aid started to arrive. It's such an enormous task to reconstruct this province and it's going to take such a lot of money that it's very difficult to see when the emergency phase will actually end, and when the reconstruction phase will actually begin," Lom said.

Also today, a small crew of U.S. Marines landed in Aceh, carrying tons of food, water, and a forklift to Meulaboh, a tsunami-devastated Indonesian fishing town.

The landing, part of the U.S. military humanitarian mission, came after days of intense negotiations between the Marines and the Indonesian military, which is coordinating the aid effort.

On Sri Lanka, children today returned to schools for the start of the new term, despite the abysmal situation in many parts of the island.

IOM spokeswoman for Sri Lanka Mary Sheehan told RFE/RL the situation is improving.

"Food and other items are getting out to the people, but I think there is a lot of fluctuation in the people who are in the camps, because people are going back to their homes, they are trying to find out whether their homes are still existing, and people are still coming back to the camps in order to get food rations and so on because their livelihoods have been completely washed away," Sheehan said.

Meanwhile, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan today completed a tour of the worst-affected countries in the region.

Annan, who has already seen first-hand the destruction in Indonesia and Sri Lanka, told a news conference in the Maldives today that the UN is ready to participate not only in the relief effort but also in the long-term reconstruction.

"As far as the United Nations and the intentional community is concerned, I think there is a will to support your country [Maldives] and others, initially through the relief and emergency phase and then recovery and reconstruction," Annan said.

In Jakarta, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said today that Berlin was willing to freeze the debt repayments of nations hit by the tsunami. Fischer made the pledge after a meeting with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.