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After Refusing Aid From Outside, Singh Offers Reassurance

To date, military relief-and-rescue operations have included 34 flights of large cargo planes, 198 flights of medium-capacity aircraft and 66 flights by smaller planes, officials said. Nine naval ships with helicopters have been used, and larger helicopters have flown 58 missions.

In Hut Bay, the first supply ship to arrive found a large section of the jetty missing. The breakwater wall had broken off into the sea, and five bridges on the coastal road leading to forest villages had collapsed. Finally, supplies were sent inland on motorcycles.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in turban, listens to pleas by survivors in at a shelter in Port Blair during a visit to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. (Manish Swarup -- AP)

"The children were hungry and sick. The earth was moving all the time, and we were too afraid to go out of the jungle," said Puniadevi Ram, 30, a mother of two. Each day, she said, two villagers trekked three hours to the harbor to look for food. "Sometimes they came with biscuits, sometimes empty-handed. It was never enough for all of us."

Only since Wednesday, when people reached relief camps near the harbor, have islanders begun receiving adequate supplies.

Similar reports have come from other islands. In West Bay, people were marooned for 12 days without help. In Katchall, islanders were not moved into relief camps until Thursday.

Radhakrishnan Muralidharan, a seventh-grader from the island of Car Nicobar, spent 10 days stranded in a jungle treetop without food or water. He had been playing cricket when the waves came, he said, and he tried to run.

"The water was too fast. It swept us all away," said the gaunt boy, who told his story at a relief camp in Port Blair. He said he lost sight of his parents and sister, grabbed onto a tree trunk, then climbed to the top and waited for the waters to recede.

"The water was taller than me. And I did not know how to swim," he said.

Every day, he said, he grew weaker from hunger and thirst.

On the 10th day, he fainted and fell from the tree. By then, the water was only chest-high, so he waded through it until a woman spotted him and alerted an air force team, which took him to Port Blair on Wednesday. A television channel tracked his parents to a hospital in Madras, on the Indian mainland, and the family was reunited on camera.

In addition to the human cost of the tsunami, island officials and residents said the physical destruction was enormous. Officials estimate that damage to the shipping infrastructure was $100 million.

Construction materials are not locally available and will have to be brought from the Indian mainland. Tourism, which brings about 100,000 visitors a year, is now impossible. Crops and farmland have been destroyed. Many islands have lost all power stations, schools, clinics, banks, police stations and post offices. The infrastructure for inter-island shipping, the lifeblood of the archipelago, has been destroyed.

"It took us so long to put these fragile islands on the development map," said Manoranjan Bhakta, who represents the islands in Parliament. "The tsunami has set us back by 30 years."

Bhakta said the immediate task was to begin building shelters for the 44,000 people who lost their homes. On Wednesday, India's Supreme Court lifted a ban on felling of trees in the archipelago's forests. The government has announced that it will give about $50 to each family in the camps.

Several international aid organizations, including Doctors Without Borders and Oxfam International, have applied for permission to travel to the islands, but the Indian government has so far allowed only UNICEF to visit to vaccinate children against measles.

A naval officer said international teams with disaster expertise, sophisticated communications and larger planes might have "increased the comfort level for the tsunami-hit by getting food and water faster but could not have saved lives."

The officer said the strategic significance of the archipelago -- a region from which oil shipments through the Strait of Malacca, between Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula, can be monitored -- was an important factor in not allowing foreign agencies to set up operations. On Thursday, the government said it would allow Indian aid groups to assist in reconstruction on the islands, but it said nothing about foreign groups.

"The entire world wants to know why we have set up a joint command in the Andaman and Nicobar. They are looking for an opening here, under the garb of relief and rescue," the naval officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "It is easy to invite somebody into your home, but it is very difficult to kick him out."

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