Earthquake, Volcano and Bird Flu Plague Indonesia

Indonesia is struggling to deliver aid to people who survived an earthquake that killed more than 5,400 people over the weekend. At least 22 countries have pledged to help relief efforts. At the same time, Indonesian authorities continue to watch for the eruption of an active volcano in the area. And six more human cases of bird flu have been reported.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

There is much to report today, from Indonesia. That's where an earthquake over the weekend killed more than 5,000 people and where six new cases of bird flu in humans have been confirmed.

In neighboring East Timor, the capital Dili was the scene of more fighting and looting today, despite the presence of Australian-led peacekeepers.

Joining us now, to help sort out these developments, is NPR's Michael Sullivan, who is in Jakarta. And Michael, let's start with the earthquake. How's the relief effort going?

MICHAEL SULLIVAN reporting:

It's going better I think, but it depends on who you talk to, too. I mean, provincial authorities and foreign aid officials say things are getting better; fewer injured coming to the hospitals; more medical help arriving to treat the ones already there; airport now open again; aid coming in and out that way, and by road. But the hospitals are just still hopelessly overcrowded. And the worst hit area, south of Yogyakarta and many towns and villages down there, people are still complaining help has been very slow to arrive, not officially anyway.

Now, to be fair, some of that is just logistics. I mean, the roads are narrow down there, they're clogged with traffic, and it makes it harder to get the help there to those who need it. But what they really need now, I think, is better shelter down there. It rained again for a long time last night, and that's two out the last three nights. And they need more than this, and more is coming, it's in the pipeline, but it's still not all there.

INSKEEP: And I suppose as people make these relief efforts, they can't forget that they're in the shadow of a volcano.

SULLIVAN: Absolutely and even before the earthquake, Steve, the authorities had evacuated several thousand people from the slopes of the volcano because the volcanologists were telling them that an eruption was likely, so they have to keep a close watch on that as well.

INSKEEP: Now we mentioned bird flu, six new cases where you are, in humans. How serious is it?

SULLIVAN: Yeah, well, in a statement released yesterday, the WHO said the Indonesian government has confirmed six cases, like you said, and that three of those people have died - and that's on top of the cluster we heard about last week in Sumatra, where seven people from the same extended family died after being infected. So, the newly confirmed cases do not appear to be related to that cluster at all. They're from all over the country, and for the moment, all seem to be linked to exposure to poultry - even though two of the deaths, a brother and sister… The WHO does say that the investigation into their deaths suggests they didn't get it from each other, but from sick poultry.

So for the moment, no human-to-human transmission proven in any of these new cases, but obviously some cause for concern.

INSKEEP: Headlines, the front pages of the newspapers in Indonesia, must be pretty scary today.

Let's talk about one other thing before you go Michael, East Timor used to be part of Indonesia. Now it's independent, has been for seven years, and facing the worst crisis of those seven years.

SULLIVAN: Yeah, well it started with the government sacking about half the army, back in March - about 600 soldiers - and the soldiers weren't very happy. And it just sort of deteriorated after that, to the point, last week, where the government asked the Australians for help. Now, many people thought that would end the violence, when they arrived. It didn't, and the cabinet has been meeting for a couple of days now, trying to figure out what to do.

And this announcement, today - we've had an announcement today, by President Xanana Gusmao, the East Timorese president, that he's going to assume control of things. And this could do the trick, cause, while the presidency has been a largely symbolic position - the government has been run by the Prime Minister, Marí Alkatiri - the president is really, really popular. And he's been, reportedly, furious with Alkatiri for the way he's handled the dismissal of soldiers, back in March. So, he may be the one man with the moral authority to bring an end to this crisis - if anyone can. At least transitionally, while they figure out a long-term solution.

He's said, in the past, that he's not really interested in running the government on a day-to-day basis. But as a very popular person, as someone who's spent a lot of time in Indonesian prisons, as the man who actually ran the resistance movement, he is very popular. And recent events just might have forced him to change his mind about running things. So this could be very good news for East Timor.

INSKEEP: Michael thanks very much.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Michael Sullivan reporting for us from Jakarta, Indonesia.

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