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Tsunami Relief: Slow But Steady

Workers dragged a cargo plane that ran into a herd of cattle off the runway at Banda Aceh airport Tuesday afternoon, clearing the way for a resumption of aid flights to a major hub of the international tsunami aid operation in Indonesia.

The crash of the Boeing 737 in the early hours of the morning caused no injuries but blocked aid flights for several hours. The airport is expected to reopen early Tuesday evening.

The accident underscores the fragility of the infrastructure in the disaster zone, where wrecked roads and bridges were blocking the flow of badly needed relief supplies.

Global leaders, meanwhile, are heading to southern Asia to get a firsthand glimpse of the damage by the Dec. 26 disaster and to hammer out a plan to help the millions of victims. Secretary of State Colin Powell - who was in Thailand on Tuesday - pledged America's full support.

Some of that support will be coming from corporations and individuals of all walks of life, as part of a national fund-raising campaign for donations big and small being led by former Presidents Bush and Clinton, announced Monday by President George W. Bush.

Many Americans, including celebrities and business leaders, have already donated. They include Leonardo Dicaprio, Sandra Bullock, computer mogul Michael Dell and his wife, and Cincinnati Reds majority owner Carl Lindner and his family.

The confirmed death toll for Asia and Africa now stands at 139,410 - almost 100,000 of those deaths are in Sumatra - but relief workers said they expect the toll to soar by tens of thousands because surveys of the western coast of Sumatra show it was hit a lot harder than previously thought. Scores of villages have been flattened and in some areas few survivors have been spotted.

In Malaysia Tuesday, authorities had good news, as an Indonesian man swept off shore by last week's tsunami was found alive, floating on tree branches and debris. He is the second person to be found alive at sea by Malaysian ships days after the disaster.

Rizal Sapura, 23, was rescued by a Malaysian cargo ship from the Indian Ocean on Monday evening, after the crew spotted him about 100 nautical miles from the shores of Aceh province.

Rizal, who subsisted mainly on rainwater, is weak and in shock, and will be rushed to the hospital when the ship arrives in Malaysia on Wednesday.

Overall in the eleven tsunami-stricken nations, the enormous death toll has risen daily. It was at 139,410 Tuesday. Indonesia has been worst hit with 94,081 deaths, Sri Lanka has 30,196, India 9,493 and Thailand 5,187.

Aid workers originally thought the island's northern province, Aceh, took the brunt of the temblor and tsunami, but now believe the low-lying western coastline was hardest hit.

"Many, many of these villages are gone. There is no trace of them. They had hardly roads before. Now they have nothing. The death toll will grow exponentially on the western coast of Sumatra. What will be final toll we will never know, but we may be talking of tens of thousands of further deaths in this area," Egeland said.

Officials across the region said identifying the dead is becoming a tough task with newly found bodies having decomposed in the sun.

"It's difficult to distinguish a blonde European and an Asian," Thai Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai said Tuesday. Half of those killed in Thailand were foreign tourists visiting the country's sun-soaked beaches, mostly from Europe.

In Indonesia, rushing aid to anyone still alive has proved a nightmare, with roads and sea jetties washed away. Access by air was the only way in. But with the closure of the small airport in Banda Aceh, the main city on the island's northern tip, it was left to helicopters, mainly based on navy vessels anchored offshore, to drop food parcels.

No one was hurt when the Boeing 737 cargo plane hit the cows after it landed at Banda Aceh airport.

"The plane landed and then it hit herd a cows," said Adri Gunawan, head of air traffic control at the Banda Aceh airport. "We've immediately closed the airport. For the rest of the day, aid flights will be prevented from flying here. It's really bad."

The airport, which used to handle about three flights a day, has been swamped with round-the-clock traffic, with dozens of aircraft hauling in water, biscuits and medicine.

It is to remain closed until authorities can get heavy equipment to move the cargo plane - but that is not expected to happen until late Tuesday. Helicopter flights will not be affected.

American pilots are also helping ferry survivors they found to overcrowded hospitals in Banda Aceh. Some victims cried, and aid workers stroked their arms and backs to comfort them. They were given chocolate wafers, water, sweaters and T-shirts.

In the shattered western village of Meulaboh, an injured man was stretched out on the ground, hooked to an intravenous drip that hung from a tree branch.

Many of the survivors were too weak from nine days with little food or water to speak or move.

Leaders from stricken nations and world donors, meanwhile, geared up to meet in Indonesia on Thursday to iron out problems in coordinating an unprecedented $2 billion global relief operation. They will also discuss an ambitious plan to set up an Indian Ocean tsunami warning system.

Asian leaders including Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi - whose nation's $500 million pledge makes it the biggest single country contributor so far - are to attend the summit, along with Powell, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, World Bank President James Wolfensohn, and top European Union officials.

"The United States will certainly not turn away from those in desperate need," Powell told leaders in Thailand following earlier criticism that Washington had been slow to respond to the Dec. 26 disaster.

"The aftermath of the tsunami is a tragedy for the entire world ... I think we have demonstrated in recent days our willingness to provide support."

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