Aceh airport mishap hampers tsunami relief

Associated Press

Banda Aceh, January 4:

The main airport at Indonesia’s tsunami-battered Sumatra island was closed for much of the day today after a relief plane hit a herd of cows, hampering the world’s still-fragile efforts to get aid to victims of tsunami that devastated the region and left nearly 150,000 dead. Hospitals overflowed with injured and malnourished survivors.

In a startling tale of survival, an Indonesian man swept off the shore by last week’s tsunami was found afloat on tree branches and debris, officials said today.

World leaders were heading to southern Asia to get a firsthand glimpse of the damage and hammer out a plan to help the millions of victims, with US Secretary of State Colin Powell pledging America’s full support. A donor conference was scheduled in Jakarta on Thursday. Relief workers said they expect the death toll to soar by tens of thousands.

But rushing aid to anyone still alive has proved a nightmare, with roads and sea jetties washed away. Planes were temporarily grounded by the closure of the small airport in Banda Aceh, the main city on the island’s northern tip.

American pilots, meanwhile, were ferrying survivors to medical help in Banda Aceh, an operation that created yet another bottleneck: overcrowded hospitals.

Leaders from stricken nations and world donors, meanwhile, geared up to meet in Indonesia on Thursday to iron out problems in coordinating an unprecedented $2 billion global relief operation. They will also discuss an ambitious plan to set up an Indian Ocean tsunami warning system.

Asian leaders including Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi are to attend the summit, along with Powell, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, World Bank President James Wolfensohn, and top EU officials. In geneva, the WHO put at 500,000 the number of people believed to have been injured in the Indian Ocean waves and warned of a “health disaster” if access to drinking water was not restored quickly.