Indonesia thanks neighbour for swift response

Indonesia has thanked neighbouring Australia for its immediate assistance after last week's earthquake and tsunamis which devastated much of its Aceh province and parts of North Sumatra.

"I'm overwhelmed by the positive gestures shown by your government as well as the Australian people," Indonesia's ambassador to Australia, Imron Cotan, said when receiving news of A$75 million (US$58 million) had been pledged to aid agencies by Australian citizens.

The Australian government has pledged a minimum of A$60 million in financial aid to the tsunami affected nations around the Indian ocean, saying most of the money will go to Indonesia.

Australian newspapers are now reporting of thousands of doctors and nurses and others desperate to volunteer to help victims. The Federal Department of Health, coordinating the medical effort, has been inundated with offers from 3000 medical professionals.

So far almost 50 Australian doctors and nurses have arrived in the disaster areas, including teams in Aceh, the Maldives and Thailand with 1,000 on stand-by. More than 200 Australian Defence Force personnel are in Aceh, providing medical and surgical aid at a 55-bed field hospital and other primary care.

Another 300 military personnel will arrive in Aceh on board HMAS Kanimbla on 14 January. The ship is delivering 100 engineers, heavy equipment, two Sea King helicopters and two large landing craft. The ship also has a fully-equipped hospital, including an operating theatre.

Royal Australian Air Force C-130 cargo aircraft were among the first to arrive in Sumatra after the natural disasters. Royal Australian Air Force detachment commander, Flight Lieutenant Harvey Reynolds, expects to have a water purification facility which can pump out 20,000 litres of purified water an hour, to be operating by today.

The first American military cargo planes arrived on Thursday. Their C-130 Hercules are fitted with night landing gear, allowing them to arrive after dark, freeing up daylight time for standard aircraft who are queuing up to land in the city.

Delivery of relief aid to isolated communities was given a big push with the arrival of the fleet of US navy helicopters from the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier group offshore. Flying through tropical rains, a dozen Sea Hawk helicopters quickly began ferrying food, water, medicines, tents and other supplies from warehouses at Banda Aceh airport to refugees in what remained of coastal towns and inland villages.

The aid deliveries were a mere drop in an ocean of need - but priceless nonetheless, said Indonesian military spokesman Ahmad Yani Basuki. "They've helped us reach places we have not had the time, or manpower, or equipment to go to," said Basuki, adding that Americans had helped clear helicopter landing spaces for the arrivals of future supplies. "It really speeds up the distribution of aid to (Sumatra's) west coast."

"In normal times, Indonesia's worst nightmare was having American marines arrive on the Banda Aceh tarmac," said Daniel Ziv, an American aid worker with several years of recent experience in the province. "Yet here we are in the middle of this operation, and we have marines here. It's a sign of progress. Normally they wouldn't stand for it."

Australians, Indonesians, Americans, Singaporeans, New Zealanders and others are transforming Bandah Aceh’s ill-equipped airport into a workable supply base. It’s great seeing the uniforms, chevrons flashing opposite directions, as the aid shipments are unloaded and reloaded.

Around 40 countries have, so far, pledged some US$2 billion to meet the needs of five million survivors in 11 countries, including the worst-affected, Indonesia. Leading the group is Japan with a pledge of US$500 million to tsunami-affected countries and the United States with US$350 million.

Malaysia, itself suffering 68 casualties, has deployed aircraft and helicopters to help Indonesia transport supplies to and victims from Aceh and has opened its airspace and two airports to US and UN relief operations.

India, another victim of the disaster, has sent hospital ship INS Nirupak and corvette INS Khukri, along with US$1 million worth emergency relief supplies to Aceh. The Nirupak will provide onboard in-patient and out-patient medical services for disaster victims.