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Flying Dusk To Dawn Ops For Relief

Wed Jan 05, 2005 2:17 am

AMPARA, Sri Lanka (AFP) - As the sun rises on this eastern shoreline of tsunami-battered Sri Lanka, dozens of airforce officers gather at the tiny Ampara military airport.

After brief greetings and discussions they split into teams for their sole mission of the day -- to carry food to thousands of people stranded in the Ampara district, where some 8,000 people were swallowed by violent waves that crashed into 11 countries on December 26.

(NOTE: I couldnt find any SLAF Bell 212 shots in the database)

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Photo © Suresh A. Atapattu

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Photo © Suresh A. Atapattu

A team takes up position in one of five Bell 212 helicopters parked on the runway and suddenly the early morning stillness is broken by a clattering roar as the machine kicks into life.

While the aircraft warms for another day of feverish activity, dozens of airforce officers line up along the tarmac besides hundreds of sacks of potatoes, rice, onions, sugar and crates of bottled water.

Within seconds the scene changes as the medium built officers lift the heavy sacks onto their shoulders and run towards the waiting machine, the wings of the chopper rotating above them.

Once loaded the chopper flies off and another is brought into action. The airlift, the biggest yet by the Sri Lankan air force, continues all day, winding down when the light fades at around 6.00 pm.

By the end of the day the exhausted men have altogether flown some two dozen sorties, carrying about a tonne of supplies each time.

"We have dropped around 24 tonnes of food a day for the past five days," said one of the pilots, swooping down at a makeshift camp where thousands of displaced villagers were waiting for his life-giving cargo.

Apart from dropping food for the hungry on the devastated coastline, the airforce is also evacuating people who may be seriously sick or wounded.

The relief operations continued even during the heavy rains which lashed the Ampara district at the weekend.

"We have not stopped a single day despite the heavy rains as the task is too huge," said wing commander Aravindo Mirando at the controls in one of the helicopters and in charge of relief on this coastal airport, east of Colombo.

"But that does not mean that we take undue risks," he said.

The officers say their job has been made easier because civilian volunteers are bringing truckloads of food to the airport.

"Goods are just pouring in so we are completely busy," said one officer.
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