/ 23 November 2007

US navy delivers aid to cyclone-hit Bangladesh

With a United States naval ship stationed off Bangladesh’s coast, US military officials prepared on Friday to deliver much-needed food and medical supplies to the hundreds of thousands that Cyclone Sidr left homeless and hungry, a top US military commander said.

Meanwhile, about 300 members from a small Islamic group briefly demonstrated in Dhaka, the capital, against the arrival of the ships, saying they were a threat to Bangladesh’s security.

”Go back! We don’t want the warships,” chanted the supporters of Hizbut Tahrirat outside the city’s largest state-run mosque. A contingent of riot police stopped them from pouring into the streets.

The arrival of the USS Kearsarge came as authorities and aid workers warned that Bangladesh faces acute food shortages after the devastating storm destroyed crops and homes across a large swathe of the country.

”We are here to help the people in their time of need,” Admiral Timothy Keating, the top US military commander in the Pacific Ocean, told reporters.

The first ship arrived on Thursday and Keating said a second ship, the USS Essex, will arrive in coming days, with assistance at the request of the Bangladeshi government.

The ships are each carrying about 20 helicopters that will help deliver water, food and medical supplies to survivors, US officials said. The ships will coordinate with the Bangladeshi military.

Officers from the USS Kearsarge spent most of Friday meeting Bangladeshi military commanders to coordinate the operation, which will include a survey of the ravaged zone to pinpoint the neediest areas, US officials said.

The actual delivery of relief supplies is expected to start on Saturday, said Geeta Pasi, the top US diplomat in Dhaka. ”We are excited to be able to respond to the immediate needs of the survivors,” said Pasi.

Health risks

US medical teams have been distributing water-purification tablets in the stricken zones to prevent outbreaks of waterborne diseases, Pasi said. With many drinking water wells destroyed by the cyclone, the need for clean water is becoming critical to ward off cholera and severe diarrhea.

In hard-hit Bagerhat district, officials recovered at least 26 decomposing bodies, demonstrating further health risks in the region, according to the local disaster-relief control room.

Since the November 15 storm hit south-western Bangladesh, officials and relief agencies have struggled to get desperately needed rice, drinking water and tents to remote villages.

”We were given some rice and lentils the other day, but that was not nearly enough for us,” said Mariam Khatoon, a villager in Bagerhat district.

Authorities are aware of the growing desperation, said Shahidul Islam, a top local official. ”We are moving as fast as we can to reach aid to the affected people,” he said. ”We are not sitting idle.”

Bangladesh’s army on Friday delivered 52 tonnes of rice, drinking water and dried food to cyclone victims on the country’s coast, said army spokesperson Major Maim Uddin.

The government has pledged to feed more than two million people left destitute by the storm, which killed about 3 200 people.

Authorities will distribute 15kg of rice per month to each of the estimated 2,5-million people, many of them in crowded relief camps, starting on December 1, said Tapan Chowdhoury, the government’s adviser on food and disaster management. The programme will last at least four months, he said.

Kelly Stevenson, the Bangladesh director of Save the Children, said the charity estimates that 50% to 90% of the region’s rice crop has been destroyed, leaving up to three million people at risk of food shortages over the next six months.

Aid pledges

Bangladesh has received pledges of international aid of $450-million, said Food and Disaster Management Secretary Mohammad Ayub Mia. Much of that comes from a $250-million pledge from the World Bank.

But aid workers are still struggling to bring aid to the worst-affected coastal region, where a shortage of supplies has led to overwhelmed relief centres.

The official death toll stands at 3 199, said Uddin, the spokesperson for the army that is coordinating the relief and rescue work.

The Disaster Management Ministry said 1 724 people were missing and 28 188 people had been injured. It said the cyclone destroyed 458 804 houses and partially damaged another 665 529. — Sapa-AP

Associated Press writers Julhas Alam in Dhaka and Bishnu Chakravorty in Bagerhat contributed to this report