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Relief efforts gain momentum; safe drinking water in short supply

JAKARTA, Indonesia—U.S. military helicopters brought food, water and medical supplies to Indonesia's stricken Aceh province Tuesday and carried out dozens of injured survivors for medical treatment as the huge mission to rescue victims of last week's earthquake and tsunami worked to overcome manmade and natural obstacles.

The amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard joined the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln off northern Indonesia, U.S. officials said, and more Navy ships were en route, including the USS Duluth and the USS Fort McHenry, carrying engineering and medical equipment.

But the delivery of relief supplies stumbled over the crippled infrastructure, and aid officials worried about a precious commodity still in critically short supply: safe drinking water.

Trucks found it difficult or impossible to navigate washed-out roads and bridges, and the airport at Banda Aceh, a key hub for relief operations, was closed for 17 hours after a plane carrying provisions crashed into a cow or water buffalo on the runway.

In Banda Aceh, scores of residents lined up for water after the Australian army finished work on a hastily installed water-purification unit.

"To the extent that there were water systems, they are contaminated," said Carol Bellamy, the executive director of UNICEF, the United Nations children's fund. Her agency is particularly concerned about drinking water, because the dehydration that results from diarrhea can be fatal to very young children.

While relief operations continued in all 12 countries affected by the tsunami, Indonesia, just 90 miles from the epicenter of the quake that set off the tidal wave, clearly was in the most need. As many as 100,000 Indonesians may have perished in the disaster.

"Here in Indonesia, there's no question the challenges are really the greatest," said Bellamy, who toured the devastation in Sri Lanka before coming to Jakarta.

The effectiveness of the relief effort varies from country to country, she said. "Certainly not everybody is getting all the assistance they need, but at least humanitarian assistance is starting to get around."

World leaders including Secretary of State Colin Powell started arriving in the region Tuesday, inspecting the disaster that's grabbed the world's attention and readying for an emergency meeting Thursday in Jakarta. Powell was accompanied by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, President Bush's brother.

Among those expected to attend the summit were Australian Prime Minister John Howard, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan. President Bush wasn't expected to attend.

Powell, stopping first in Thailand, pledged continued U.S. assistance. "We have a considerable amount of money ready to be spent," he said, "and we're spending it as fast as it's needed."

In the accident at the Banda Aceh airport—the only one in the region capable of receiving large aircraft—the Boeing 737 cargo plane damaged its landing gear when it struck the animal. The jet skidded along the runway and wound up resting on an engine under one of its wings.

Pentagon officials said the U.S. role in relief operations would grow, with the number of helicopters committed likely to double from the current 46.

"Helicopters are a tremendous advantage because ... they don't have the same restrictions as fixed-wing aircraft in terms of how many you can have on the ground at any one time," Adm. Thomas Fargo, the top U.S. commander in the Pacific, told a Pentagon briefing.

The U.S. Navy also is preparing to dispatch a 1,000-bed hospital ship, the San Diego-based U.S.N.C. Mercy, to the region, he said.

The extraordinary Jakarta summit is expected to cover a range of subjects, from immediate relief efforts to long-term remedies such as a tsunami warning system for the region. Thailand's government fired its chief meteorologist Tuesday for failing to warn about possible tidal waves after detecting the earthquake that set off the tsunami Dec. 26.

The summit was put together with lightning speed—such international meetings usually take months if not years to plan. Security was a concern in a capital where attacks on a JW Marriott hotel and the Australian Embassy have been blamed on a militant Islamic group associated with al-Qaida.

Powell, who met with Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in Bangkok before traveling to the beach resort of Phuket to survey the storm damage, said he was struck by the difficulty of identifying the victims. The bodies are being found in ever more advanced stages of decomposition.

"The challenge that I've seen here this afternoon that I will go back and see if there's not more we can do has to do with verification of remains," he said.

The State Department on Tuesday increased the U.S. death toll from the tsunami by one, to 16. Spokesman Adam Ereli said the department still was investigating slightly more than 4,000 unresolved inquiries by family members checking on the status of loved ones.

While the department hasn't released any estimates of the American death toll, a State Department official who has worked in the region privately predicted it would be in "the tens" or at most 50. In Thailand, for example, most of the U.S. expatriate population lives in unaffected areas, the official said.

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(Moritsugu reported from Jakarta; Stocking reported from Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Knight Ridder correspondents Steven Thomma, Jonathan S. Landay and Warren P. Strobel in Washington contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): TSUNAMI

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050104 TSUNAMI water, 20050104 TSUNAMI land

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