- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 8, 2005

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Secretary of State Colin L. Powell concluded a three-nation tour of tsunami-battered South Asia yesterday, announcing $10 million in additional aid for this island nation while trying to sidestep one of the region’s bloodiest ethnic conflicts.

In scenes reminiscent of his stops in Thailand and Indonesia earlier in the week, Mr. Powell took a helicopter and car tour of the Sri Lankan coastline around the regional capital of Galle, as survivors cleared out destroyed houses, beached boats and high mounds of trash and twisted debris.

“The destruction was more than just walls that have been knocked down or buildings that have been crushed,” said Mr. Powell at the end of his brief stop on the island.

“It is the lives that have been crushed and snuffed out,” he said.

More than 10,000 American soldiers, sailors and Marines are expected to assist in relief efforts over the next few months, and the new $10 million program for temporary housing for survivors raises U.S. allocation for the country as a whole to just under $25 million — out of the total $350 million pledged by the Bush administration for the region.

But the American commitment comes as the government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga remains engaged in a brutal struggle with a rebellion by the minority ethnic Tamils.

Much of the damage and many of the more than 30,000 Sri Lankans killed in the Dec. 26 tsunami are believed to be in areas controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Initially, there were tentative signs the rebels and the government had begun coordinating relief efforts in the face of the overwhelming disaster.

But the cooperation has come under strain in recent days. Tamil rebels have objected strongly to Sri Lankan soldiers in relief stations set up in affected areas, telling the BBC there would be “serious consequences” if the troops were not pulled back.

And the Kumaratunga government wants a tighter rein over official aid distribution, displacing an independent agency that delivered to both government- and rebel-controlled areas.

Mr. Powell made clear the U.S. relief effort and military aid commitment did not mean Washington was ready to work with the Tamil Tigers, which the State Department designated a terrorist organization in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

U.S. Marines are operating largely in southern parts of the country under firm government control and U.S. officials have had no contacts with the Tamil separatists.

“I don’t think our military presence in any way shapes or affects the political situation,” Mr. Powell said. “It is strictly for humanitarian purposes.”

In the helicopter ride down Sri Lanka’s western coast from Colombo to Galle, the U.S. delegation saw deserted beachfront resorts pummeled by the waves, a string of beached boats and denuded areas where homes and piers once stood.

The damage was all the more awesome because the western coast received only the rebound waves after the tsunami’s first blows came ashore in neighboring India.

In Galle itself, Mr. Powell toured a relief center for survivors set up in the courtyard of a government-run school by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Red Cross.

Aid workers passed out boxed family hygiene kits marked “Gift of the People of the United States of America” to a long line of elderly Sri Lankan men and women.

At one point, a Sri Lankan Red Cross worker handed Mr. Powell a two-page poem he had just composed describing the wave’s fury and the hopes for rebuilding.

“I will give this to President Bush,” Mr. Powell promised.

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