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US military ferries dazed survivors, drops aid

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia -- A massive US military relief operation picked up steam yesterday, with helicopters dropping off cartons of food aid in Sumatra and warships with 2,200 Marines arriving in the Malacca Straits to ferry supplies to the tsunami-battered Indonesian island.

As the death toll around the Indian Ocean rim approached 140,000, a delegation led by Secretary of State Colin Powell and Florida Governor Jeb Bush began a trip that will include stops in Thailand, Indonesia, and possibly Sri Lanka. The White House also said former Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush will lead a fund-raising effort for victims.

US Navy helicopters rescued dozens of weakened survivors along Sumatra's devastated west coast, carrying them to a hospital in Banda Aceh.

Searchers all but gave up hope of finding more survivors from the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami, with authorities saying that thousands listed as missing were presumed dead. The world turned its full attention to getting food and water to the living.

Confirmed deaths from the disaster reached 139,253 after Indonesia increased its toll to 94,081, and Sri Lanka and Thailand raised their tolls. Aid agencies have said the death toll was expected to hit 150,000. Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand said they were prepared to halt searches for the more than 15,000 people still missing.

The tsunami struck the region with little notice after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, and Indonesia announced plans yesterday to work with its Asian neighbors to establish a warning system for coastal communities before potentially deadly waves hit.

Aid workers were trying to help millions of displaced and devastated survivors put their towns and villages back together.

Yesterday, the USS Bonhomme Richard and two other warships carrying a Marine expeditionary unit, dozens of helicopters, and tons of supplies steamed into the Indian Ocean to join relief operations off the northwest coast of Indonesia's Sumatra Island.

Later this week, the group was scheduled to begin operations off Sri Lanka.

The ships are part of one of the largest US military missions in Asia since the Vietnam War ended in 1975. The aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and its battle group are operating off northern Sumatra, the hardest-hit area, and US airlift operations are being flown out of Utapao, a Thailand base used to launch bombing runs during that war.

A US cargo plane brought the first two military helicopters and support troops yesterday to Sri Lanka from Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan.

The Pentagon also has decided to send the USNS Mercy, a 1,000-bed hospital ship based at San Diego, to join the relief effort, two officials said yesterday on condition of anonymity.

The US helicopters carried about 60 survivors -- including two pregnant women and some so weak they could neither walk nor talk -- to the Banda Aceh hospital after the American military received permission from Jakarta to pick up those in bad shape. Many had had little food or water for eight days, and they suffered from ailments including pneumonia, broken bones, infected wounds, tetanus, and trauma.

Several also were brought to the USS Abraham Lincoln on stretchers.

''I'd much rather be doing this than fighting a war," said helicopter pilot Lieutenant Commander William Whitsitt of Great Falls, Mont.

Also on Sumatra, US helicopters dropped off cartons of food aid donated by Singapore schools. At Karim Rajia, two helicopters dropped off 1,800 pounds of soup and biscuits in cartons stenciled: ''Our deepest condolences to the brothers and sisters in Aceh. May god be with them. Love from the teachers and students of Singapore."

''They've helped us reach places we have not had the time, or manpower, or equipment to go to," said Indonesian military spokesman Ahmad Yani Basuki, adding that Americans had helped clear helicopter landing spaces for the arrivals of future supplies. ''It really speeds up the distribution of aid to (Sumatra's) west coast."

International donors, meeting in Indonesia, have so far pledged about $2 billion, according to the United Nations. But the needs of disaster victims remain enormous, and relief efforts have been hampered by the destruction of roads, ports, and airfields.

Across the devastated region, hope was fading by the hour for the tens of thousands still missing.

''There is very little chance of finding survivors after seven days," said Lamsar Sipahutar, the head of the search team in Indonesia. ''We are about to stop the search-and-rescue operations."

In Sri Lanka, N.D. Hettiarachchi, director at the National Disaster Management Center, said nearly 17,000 people were injured and almost 1 million people had been displaced and were living in temporary camps at schools and religious places.

Children accounted for 40 percent, or 12,000, of the dead in Sri Lanka, officials said. But without bodies, many parents find it hard to believe their children are dead. Some were buried in mass graves before parents were told, while many others were swept out to sea.

Day after day, parents come at dawn and wander the beach in the devastated districts of Ampara and Batticaloa.

''They believe their kids are alive and the sea will return them -- one day," UNICEF chief Carol Bellamy said Sunday after touring the tsunami-devastated shore.

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