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Another detailed strategy

Posted by Richard Friday, January 07, 2005

I really did think that the BBC might cover this bizarre aspect of the relief – the news that the Sri Lankan government had turned away the splendid USS Bonhomme Richard (BHR) and its accompanying USS Duluth – as well as aid from India. One might also have thought that that the peace-loving EU, or even the UN, might intervene. Silly me!

The reason why this life-saving relief has been turned away, according to Associated Press, is that the island's Tamil Tiger rebels objected to the presence of troops from the United States or neighbouring India, saying they could be used as spies for the government. The rebels, which control a large portion of northern and eastern Sri Lanka, detest the U.S. and Indian governments because both officially list the Tamil Tigers as a terrorist group.

A sense of the frustration came in the AP report, describing how, on the Bonhomme Richard, everything was ready. "There are tractors, trucks and three huge landing craft. There's water purifying equipment and plastic tarps and wood beams for building temporary shelters. And there are more than 1,300 Marines ready to take it all ashore and get to work helping tsunami survivors."

But, continued the report, in the political minefield of southern Asia, getting American boots on the ground is a delicate concept - even for a strictly humanitarian mission.

Now, only the USS Mount Rushmore, an amphibious ship carrying a smaller contingent of Marines, is going on to Sri Lanka alone and is expected to reach there by the weekend. The loss, of course, will be the civilians of Sri Lanka, in one of the countries least equipped to deal with the aftermath of the tsunami.

But hey, who cares? Certainly not the BBC, which clearly could not deal with the idea of needy countries actually rejecting aid. That does not fit the plot.

Unless I missed something, there was no mention of anything of this in BBC broadcasts and all we get from the BBC web site is that: "A dispute is growing in Sri Lanka over whether the government has given enough aid to Tamils in former conflict areas which were devastated by the tsunami."

According to this report, Tamil Tiger rebels say the government has sent very little. But the authorities say vastly more has gone to the predominantly Tamil north-east than to the island's south. The BBC's Frances Harrison says the disaster now looks likely to exacerbate ethnic grievances in Sri Lanka rather than help heal them.

And from UN emergency relief co-ordinator Jan "Humperdink" Egeland, all we get is an "even handed" warning to the opposing sides in "Sri Lanka, Sumatra and Somalia" to keep the peace or risk billions of dollars in aid.

Sri Lanka’s loss, however, is Sumatra’s gain as the Bonhomme Richard is now on station and in position to provide large-scale humanitarian assistance to the island. It has been has been flying hundreds of thousands of pounds of disaster aid in its CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters from both support ships and warehouses in Sumatra in preparation to deliver it to the hardest hit areas of the island.

Oddly, part of that activity has not been bringing in aid supplies. BHR's helicopters have been taking them away. Aid has flooded into the city of Medan and the supplies had been stacked in disorganized piles near a warehouse at the city’s airport, an overwhelming amount beyond what was immediately needed in the area. Once the rains hit, with local flooding, the supplies were in danger of being spoiled and only an emergency lift by the Marines saved the day.

Again demonstrating the value of these assets. Bonhomme Richard’s CO, Capt. J Scott Jones, states that "We are self sufficient. We don't have to rely on the host country to support us while we try to help them." He adds that: "Our helicopters can cover the entire coastline of Sumatra. We're mobile and versatile. We can go anywhere they need us to go, and that’s the benefit of having a Navy."

Once again, though, the familiar litany – nothing of this from the BBC and not mention of the fact that the US military is now spending $6 million a day on its relief efforts, with $40 million having been spent so far. That does not include the latest addition to the growing fleet, the high-speed catamaran transport ship, HSV 2 Swift, which also has a helicopter flight deck. It was deployed this week to join the relief effort.

What really is puzzling though, as US relief continues to pour in is that, at the Jakarta donor conference today, US secretary of state Colin Powell agreed to disband the US-led core group of nations providing tsunami relief, and hand over the co-ordination responsibility to Kofi Annan’s UN.

After Kofi had so skilfully managing the Iraqi oil for food programme, one might have though that the Americans would have been less than happy to let Kofi near a pot of money that is fast growing to $5 billion.

The United Nations and international donors on Thursday faced an unusual problem as they sought to rally help for victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami: not a shortage of money, but a surfeit - or at least far more promised cash than they can use in the coming months.

Despite reports, according to the Financial Times, that the outpouring of public donations and government pledges from around the world has created an embarrassment of riches, with the UN unable to spend what it has already collected, Kofi launched into his new role by demanding still more money.

In fact, the $5 billion so far promised amounts to about $1,000 for each of the estimated 5m people affected, much more than the typical annual income of a Sri Lankan fisherman or an Indian villager, let alone an African peasant. Needless, to say, though, UN officials do not want to stop the money flowing.

And today it is the EU's turn, as the foreign ministers of the 25 member states gather to discuss longer term development plans. Britain will be represented by Europe minister Dennis McShame and junior development minister Gareth Thomas – with Jack Straw not to be seen.

EU development commissioner, Louis Michel, we are told - who has spent the past week in the stricken region assessing needs and “liaising with international organisations to ensure a streamlined, co-ordinated relief response” – will be putting forward his proposals. However, as The Scotsman wearily observes, "Tomorrow’s meeting is unlikely to reach any firm conclusions". The ministers will "take stock and begin piecing together a detailed strategy".

By the way, if you want more detail on what the US Navy is doing, it is running its own tsunami site.