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US Aid Groups Send $7 Million in Supplies to Tsunami Victims

A cargo plane loaded with more than $7 million dollars worth of medicine, food and emergency supplies left Los Angeles for tsunami-stricken Southeast Asia Wednesday. The airlift marked the end of short-term relief efforts for several organizations, and the start of long-term reconstruction.

The airlift was organized by Operation U.S.A, a California-based aid group, and Islamic Relief U.S.A, the US branch of a British-based charity.

Islamic Relief began operations 21 years ago to assist drought-stricken regions of Africa. It later expanded to Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia, and its office in Jakarta sprung into action within hours of the December 26 tsunami. The organization's Indonesia staff relocated to Banda Aceh province, where more than 100,000 bodies have been recovered and 130,000 people are still missing.

Arif Shaikh is a spokesman for the group.

"We have several projects on the ground, including water sanitation, emergency food distribution, shelter projects,” he said. “So now we're entering into our reconstruction phase. So this shipment actually is kind of the culmination of our emergency response, and it's our largest in-kind shipment ever."

The shipment aboard a Boeing 747 cargo aircraft contained hygiene kits, food, emergency shelters and pharmaceuticals.

Many supplies for this flight came from private companies. The airfreight firm Polar Air is providing transportation. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, whose members are known as Mormons, also contributed. Arif Shaikh says the US-based religious group has been involved with Islamic Relief in other ventures.

"The past year, they have sent four shipments to different countries, including Sudan and Bangladesh, and we sent a shipment on New Year's Day with them as well to Banda Aceh,” he added. “This shipment is their second contribution to Islamic Relief for the specific tsunami disaster in Indonesia, and we hope it continues."

Los Angeles airport police sergeant Joaquin Mendez organized a collection from airport workers, who contributed hundreds of items to the airlift.

"… shovels, hoes, picks, axes, tarps, ropes, flashlights, things that the tsunami survivors can use to rebuild their homes," he said.

Gary Larsen of Operation USA says his organization began sending aid to southeast Asian refugees in 1979, as so-called boat people fled Vietnam and famine hit war-torn Cambodia. Today, Operation USA helps people in crisis around the world. He says it partnered with Islamic Relief because that organization has workers on the ground in Indonesia. He says Islamic Relief is just the newest partner for his organization in the region.

"We have an ongoing relationship both in Sri Lanka, with the Tamil relief organization, and in India, with the Vivekananda Foundation,” said Mr. Larsen. “We don't in Indonesia, and that's why we're so delighted to link up with Islamic Relief, because they have contacts there. That's the first way that we can get some relief into that area."

Mr. Larsen says the tsunami crisis has generated more contributions than any other disaster in the relief group's 26-year history. Spokesmen for both organizations say reconstruction may be even more difficult than initial emergency operations, as housing is rebuilt and communities are rehabilitated. The spokesmen say the organizations plan a long-term commitment to the region.