PADANG, INDONESIA // The US military is increasing aid to victims of a deadly earthquake that made hundreds of thousands homeless on Sumatra island - its largest relief operation in Indonesia since the 2004 tsunami. Two Navy ships were expected to arrive today or tomorrow, along with a USAID flight with 50 tonnes of emergency relief, said US Rear Admiral Richard Landolt. He said a supply ship has also been cleared to begin operations with four helicopters large enough to carry 30-40 people or equipment to areas that cannot be reached by land.
The expansion of the US mission, with as many as 600 troops, comes as efforts shift from the search for survivors to providing relief to villages that have been cut off by massive landslides generated by last Wednesday's magnitude-7.6 quake. Villagers are complaining of a lack of assistance even as aid workers from at least 20 countries descend on West Sumatra. The homeless are huddling in makeshift shelters and cook meagre meals of rice and noodles over open fires or eat vegetables from their fields.
Many villages were swept away by landslides in remote hilly terrain to the north of the regional capital, Padang. Roads were severed or so badly damaged that they are only passable on foot or motorbike. In all, about 180,000 buildings were severely damaged or flattened in the quake, including almost 90,000 homes, Indonesia's Disaster Management Agency said. The official death toll stands at 704 and officials said it could reach into the thousands.
It is the worst natural disaster to hit Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim-majority nation, since a quake in the central Javanese city of Yogyakarta killed about 6,000 in May 2006. That followed the 2004 tsunami which killed 230,000 in a dozen countries, roughly half in Indonesia's Aceh province. US military played a major role in the multinational relief effort for tsunami victims - an intervention that improved America's standing in the region at a time of negative perceptions following the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Rear Admiral Landolt, who arrived yesterday, said the Navy ships were full of supplies, food and heavy equipment that can be used to clear roads and excavate collapsed buildings. *AP