India obstructing aid, say groups

PORT BLAIR (India): The Indian government's refusal to allow access to the remote Andaman and Nicobar islands is preventing aid from reaching the most desperate survivors of last week's tsunamis, international aid groups said yesterday, as the country's death toll was expected to top 15,000. 

Despite the Dec 26 tsunamis that ripped through the low-lying atolls, the Indian government has stood by its long-standing policy of restricting entry to the islands out of concerns for the security of a military air base as well as the protection of indigenous tribes.  

“This closed-door approach of not allowing NGOs (non-governmental organisations) is delaying relief efforts,'' said Shaheen Nilofer, programme manager for Eastern India for international aid agency Oxfam. 

“Valuable time has been lost because of this delay. (India is) accelerating the miseries of the poor people,'' she said. “Somewhere, someone has to be responsible. If you don't take care of the survivors, the number of deaths can far outnumber the deaths from the tsunami.'' 

By yesterday morning, the Home Ministry put India's official death toll at 9,479, with another 5,681 people missing and feared dead in the remote island territories. 

Ronen Sen, India's ambassador to the United States, said on Sunday in Washington that “the likelihood of these people remaining alive is diminishing”. 

The latest quake to hit Andaman and Nicobar was a 6.0-magnitude tremor that struck overnight on Sunday in the seas near the islands, but there were no reports of casualties or other damage, an official at New Delhi's Meteorology Department said.  

Meanwhile, the handful of Indian volunteer groups and government officials allowed access to the islands continued to conduct an island-by-island search for thousands of missing, feared buried under layers of debris and mud in the 500-plus-island archipelago. 

The government said late last week it had not made a decision regarding requests by foreign aid groups, including Medecins San Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) and Oxfam, to deliver aid to the more remote islands. 

Instead, it has ferried survivors to Port Blair where entry is not restricted. 

Oxfam was the first of several international aid groups to reach Port Blair, where hundreds of survivors have been pouring into camps after being evacuated by ship. Aid officials said survivors still on the islands were in need of food and water. – AP  

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