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Hope dawns as tsunami aid arrives

The international lifeline to save 5-million victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami gathered strength on land, sea and air on Sunday, as cargo-laden ships and planes converged on stricken coasts in Indonesia and other countries, and helicopters ferried food, water and medicines to desperate, isolated survivors.

Secretary of State Colin Powell and President Bush's brother and personal representative, Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, left Sunday for Asia, and Secretary-General Kofi Annan of the United Nations will depart today to tour the hardest-hit regions and to join a conference of Southeast Asian nations in Jakarta on Thursday to map strategy for the relief effort.

Jan Egeland, the U.N. emergency relief coordinator, recounted progress in relief efforts in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and other nations. He told of new clinics in remote areas, listed more pledges of new aid and, in contrast to the terrible news of recent days, spoke of reasons for optimism.

"The good news is coming in by the hour," Egeland said in New York, citing a donation of much-needed heavy forklifts as an example. "I am more optimistic than yesterday, and much more than the day before, that we, the global community, will be able to face up to this enormous challenge."

It was only the beginning of a relief campaign that has drawn pledges of $2-billion from 40 countries and will go on for months, if not years, and the suffering was still widespread. But after a week of horrific reports _ with estimates of as many as 150,000 dead, 500,000 seriously injured, 1.8-million homeless and hungry, and tens of thousands missing _ there was a sense of progress and even rays of hope.

A Sumatran fisherman, 24-year-old Tengku Sofyan, was found barely alive under his beached boat in Lampulo, in the Aceh province of northern Sumatra. He had been trapped for a week without food and water, could barely speak and was badly dehydrated.

"He's in extremely fragile condition, especially mentally," said Dr. Irwan Azwar, who treated Sofyan.

Rescue workers, many of whom have dug through rubble and piles of bodies for days without finding anyone alive, said that discovering missing people alive now bordered on hoping for miracles. Lamsar Sipahutar, the director of search efforts in Indonesia, said that the Jakarta government was ready to call off the search for missing people to concentrate on getting help to known survivors. Indonesia, closest to the epicenter of the undersea earthquake, said today that 94,081 of its people were killed.

After days of red tape, washed out roads and bridges and other problems, substantial help was finally getting through, officials said. Four Indonesian navy frigates loaded with supplies arrived off Meulaboh, the devastated city on the west coast of Aceh province, where at least 10,000 people were killed and many survivors have wandered for a week among the bodies and flattened homes.

Off Banda Aceh, the provincial capital on the northeast coast, a five-ship U.S. naval group led by the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln was on station for a second day. Its helicopters flew 10 relief flights into Meulaboh, and other sorties into towns and villages in Aceh, moving tons of supplies from airport warehouses to survivors, U.S. military officials said.

As the helicopters flew deeper into the disaster areas, the pilots and crews brought out refugees and returned with accounts of wrecked villages and clusters of survivors they could not carry away, people in tattered clothes who grabbed desperately at cases of food and water.

Meanwhile, a steady stream of cargo planes from many nations continued to land supplies at the Banda Aceh and Medan airports.

Michael Elmquist, coordinator of the U.N. relief operations in Indonesia, said that major progress had been made, both in distributing supplies that had piled up at the regional airports and in evacuating many people who had been left homeless and cut off by the destruction of roads and communications.

"It's absolutely lifesaving," Elmquist said in Jakarta of the helicopter evacuations. "We are absolutely thrilled that Americans are doing that. They are the only ones who have the capacity to reach those parts of the population right now."

Health officials in Sumatra said that no major epidemics or medical crises had broken out, although the need for clean water and sanitation was urgent. In New York, Egeland, the U.N. relief coordinator, said there had been sharp increases in diarrhea and respiratory problems, but no reports of cholera.

The World Health Organization said that 50 international medical aid groups had arrived in Aceh province. And Indonesian officials said that eight field hospitals operated by Indonesian, Singaporean and Australian teams had been set up in Banda Aceh, Meulaboh and other towns. Australia said that a 90-member medical team was on the way to organize another field hospital in Aceh.

In Sri Lanka, government officials raised the death toll to 29,729, with 5,540 missing and more than 800,000 left homeless by the tsunami. Flash floods that had struck on the badly damaged east coast on Friday and Saturday were receding Sunday. The floods had forced the evacuation of thousands from refugee camps.

Aid officials said there was plenty of food and clothing, even a surplus. But thousands of people were living in hundreds of small camps and other temporary shelters without adequate sanitation, and health officials in Colombo warned of the possibility of widespread disease. Eric Fernando, a spokesman for Sri Lanka's president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, said that international aid had been abundant, but that there was a pressing need for water-purification equipment.

A convoy of U.S. vessels led by the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard was expected to arrive in Sri Lanka early this week with 1,500 Marines, 20 helicopters, two C-130 planes and desalination equipment to provide clean water for thousands.

Help was also on the way to India's devastated Andaman and Nicobar Islands, an archipelago in the Bay of Bengal where thousands are believed to have perished in the tsunami. For many of the 350,000 islanders, there has been no outside help, although military planes have airdropped food in some areas. The first Indian navy supply ship since the tsunami arrived in the islands on Sunday, but shortages were not expected to end immediately because the distribution system is chaotic. Piles of supplies lay at the airport at Port Blair, the capital.

On Sunday, the Indian government again put aside private aid groups' urgent requests to help tsunami survivors on the devastated islands. The government views the islands as important for monitoring China and shipping lanes.

Officials are reluctant to allow foreign groups access to many of the islands' protected reserves for indigenous tribes. Parts of the islands, home to 350,000 people, are off-limits to foreigners in normal times, and even Indians need special travel permits to visit.

Information from the Associated Press and Washington Post was used in this report.






U.S. AID PLEDGE: $350-million