U.S. Navy help arrives in Bangladesh

DHAKA, Bangladesh — The U.S. Navy prepared Friday to deliver much-needed food and medical supplies to hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis stricken by Cyclone Sidr, a top U.S. military commander said.

The arrival of the USS Kearsarge off the Bangladesh coast came as authorities and aid workers warned that the South Asian country faces acute food shortages after the devastating storm ravaged crops and destroyed infrastructure across a large swath of the country.

“We are here to help the people in their time of need,” said Adm. Timothy Keating, the top U.S. military commander for the Pacific Ocean.

The first ship arrived Thursday and Keating said a second ship, the USS Essex, would arrive in the coming days.

About 300 members from a small Islamic group, Hizbut Tahrir, briefly demonstrated in Dhaka against the arrival of the ships, saying they were a threat to Bangladesh’s security.

“Go back! We don’t want the warships,” shouted the protesters at the city’s largest state-run mosque after Friday prayers. A contingent of riot police stopped them from pouring into the streets.

The U.S. ships are each carrying about 20 helicopters, which will help in delivering water, food and medical supplies to survivors in remote areas, U.S. officials said.

Officers from the Kearsarge spent most of Friday meeting with Bangladeshi military commanders to coordinate the operation, which will include a survey of the ravaged zone to pinpoint the neediest areas, U.S. officials said.

The delivery of relief supplies is expected to start today, said Geeta Pasi, the top U.S. diplomat in Dhaka.

“We are excited to be able to respond to the immediate needs of the survivors,” said Pasi.

U.S. medical teams have been distributing water purification tablets in the stricken zones to prevent outbreaks of waterborne diseases, Pasi added.

With many drinking water wells destroyed by the cyclone, the need for clean water was becoming critical to ward off cholera and severe diarrhea.

The government has pledged to feed more than two million people left destitute by the storm, which killed more than 3,000.

But since the storm hit southwestern Bangladesh Nov. 15, officials and relief agencies have struggled to get desperately needed rice, drinking water and tents to remote villages cut off when rain and winds washed out roads.

The government has promised to distribute 33 pounds of rice per month to each of the estimated 2.5 million people in need, many of them in crowded relief camps, starting Dec. 1, said Tapan Chowdhoury, the government’s adviser on food and disaster management.

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