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Private aid groups pressing New Delhi for access to islands

NEW DELHI -- India's government again put aside private aid groups' urgent requests yesterday to help tsunami survivors on the devastated Andaman and Nicobar Islands, saying a decision would be made after five days.

In a meeting in Port Blair, the archipelago's administrative capital, aid workers from Indian and foreign private groups pressed Indian officials for access to the remote islands, where relief operations are being handled by the Indian government and military. R. Kapse, lieutenant governor of the islands, told them no decision would be announced yesterday.

''This is an unfortunate delay," said Shaheen Nilofer, who represented Oxfam India, the country's chapter of the British-based humanitarian aid organization, at the meeting in Port Blair. ''What is worrying is that the Andaman and Nicobar situation requires urgent attention and action."

Nilofer said, ''We want to accelerate and expand the humanitarian assistance to the distressed by working alongside the government."

The extent of casualties and property damage in the islands remains unknown because a large number of communities have not been reached by outsiders. A Home Ministry report released yesterday said that about 812 people were confirmed dead in Andaman and Nicobar and that 5,400 others remain missing.

Last week, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India declined foreign countries' offers of humanitarian assistance, saying, ''We feel we can cope up with the situation on our own, and we will take their help if needed."

India had promised aid to neighboring countries. But Saturday, Singh asked for donations to boost the government's $232 million relief package, the Agence France-Presse news outlet reported.

Located about 900 miles east of the Indian mainland, the islands are viewed by the government as being 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.

International aid groups are working in the tsunami-battered state of Tamil Nadu, where about 7,700 people have died. But requests by groups such as Oxfam, Catholic Relief Services and Doctors Without Borders to go deep into the Andaman and Nicobar Islands have not been approved.

''Right now, the entire operation in the Andaman and Nicobar is managed by the government and the military," Nilofer of Oxfam said. ''But it is not just a matter of delivering food. The survivors need sustained care and trauma counseling in rebuilding their lives. A lot of us have an expertise in disaster relief and reconstruction. Let us not deny the people's right to receive."

The national government in New Delhi has approved more than $22 million relief and reconstruction on the islands.

Admiral Raman Puri, who heads the control room in the Defense Ministry in New Delhi, said that these were the ''biggest peacetime disaster relief operations" that the Indian defense forces have ever carried out.

He said the Indian navy has sent three survey ships that have been converted into floating medical facilities. Navy vessels and aircraft have delivered about 550 tons of relief supplies, including food and medicine.

A spokesman in Singh's office said the government and the military command will handle the initial relief work on the islands and outsiders will be allowed in the later phase.

''A lot of these external groups, whether Indian or foreign, are not familiar with the topography of the islands," Sanjay Baru, the prime minister's spokesman, said.

''The military command that is based there is best equipped to deal with initial rescue and relief. When outsiders come in, they often need a lot of hand-holding, showing them the map, helping them settle in. Precious resources get diverted just taking care of them. So we feel they can come at a later stage when reconstruction is required."

Some disaster specialists said foreign assistance did not make a critical difference.

''It usually takes two to three days for the best international teams to come in, and by then it is too late for rescue," said Aromar Revi, who works for a New Delhi-based consulting group.

''And their relief materials often consist of culturally inappropriate clothes and food."

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