April 20, 2003 - Newsday: Relief organization enters Basra for assessment

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Relief organization enters Basra for assessment

Relief organization enters Basra for assessment

Relief organization enters Basra for assessment

Associated Press Writer

April 20, 2003, 11:48 PM EDT

HARTFORD, Conn. -- Relief workers from Westport-based Save the Children were able to enter the Iraq city of Basra for the first time Saturday to assess what aid the war-torn city needs, officials with the organization said.

Meanwhile, New Canaan-based AmeriCares is planning to travel to Jordan and find a convoy to deliver 15,000 pounds of medical supplies to Baghdad, The Hour of Norwalk reported.

In a telephone interview from Iraq, Save the Children spokeswoman Nicole Amoroso said that four representatives from the agency were able to enter the country's second-largest city. The organization had previously been restricted to working in the port city of Umm Qasr, the only area the U.S. military has deemed safe for humanitarian groups.

"We've been on the peripheral so long ... we feel pretty good we can at least get in there," Amoroso said.

She said workers in Iraq were expecting to be able to deliver aid to the city by Tuesday or Wednesday, and that eight workers were planning to conduct another assessment Monday.

British and Iraqi workers during the weekend reopened a rail line between Umm Qasr and Basra to spur relief efforts to the region. Local residents were working with British forces and had managed to restore water, electricity and a local phone system in town.

But the southern city has not yet been declared permissible for workers to deliver aid, said Save the Children spokesman Mike Kiernan.

"They're going to go ahead and do the assessments, but we won't be moving in with supplies and aid workers on a permanent basis until it is deemed permissive," Kiernan said. "As of Friday, they weren't sure if they were even going to be able to go in."

The trip from Umm Qasr to Basra took about a half-hour, Amoroso said. During Saturday's assessment, the workers found an operating bus system and heard schools were open, she said. Workers saw vegetable stands and restaurants open for business, she said. And there were few reports of children who had been separated from parents during the war.

She said workers were looking over the city to determine what health care, food, medical supplies and other services the city would need when workers are given clearance to deliver aid.

The organization's security manager reported that the region would be safe for workers to enter and begin business, she said. But security in the city of 1.2 million varied from night to day, with reports of scattered gunfire in the streets at night.

"We heard at nighttime, it's entirely different," she said. "People should not go out because there's sporadic gunfire."

The workers entered Iraq in early April when given clearance to deliver aid to Umm Qasr. The workers found a severe shortage of water, medical supplies and hospital workers in the tiny port town.

Save the Children also hopes to be able to help deliver aid to Baghdad when the city is declared safe.

AmeriCares' Peter Tokarczyk, the agency's director of disaster services, plans to go to Jordan in the next few weeks. AmeriCares recently went to Turkey to work out plans to transport 67,000 pounds of medical supplies into Iraq. Another 15,000 pounds is waiting in Jordan.

Once the organization feels that traveling between the countries is relatively safe, it will work with partners in the Middle East, such as the Turkmeneli Foundation and the Red Crescent Society, to distribute the supplies.

Tokarczyk, of Danbury, is waiting for conditions to improve before flying to the Jordan, but he wants to leave in the next two weeks. He will then make arrangements for the supplies to travel Northeast on Highway 10 to Baghdad.

Right now, though, he says there is too much looting, too much lawlessness to attempt the trip.

U.S. Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn, visited the region this week against recommendations from the U.S. military and State Department. He said he is frustrated that aid is not reaching the Iraqi people fast enough. Shays traveled with a convoy of Save the Children aid workers to cross the border, he said.

"I can't speak for the military people. They have a job to do and they don't want to create any unnecessary risks," Shays said in an interview from Iraq earlier this week. "But if journalists are able to go in, why not the humanitarians?"

Shays said he would hold congressional hearings when he returns from his 10-day tour of the region about how aid organizations are engaged.

Kiernan said the rail's opening and the clearance for assessment were encouraging. He said operations would be more complicated once the aid organization enters Basra for good.

"We're making progress in Umm Qasr," he said. "It's going to be much more complicated in Basra. 1.2 million versus 31,000 in Umm Qasr is a much larger operation."

Copyright © 2003, The Associated Press

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Story Source: Newsday

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