KATHMANDU (Reuters) - U.S. military aircraft, heavy equipment and air traffic controllers will start arriving in Nepal from Saturday as part of a U.S. relief operation following the devastating earthquake, a senior U.S. officer said.
The 7.8 magnitude quake that struck last Saturday killed at least 6,250 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless when it destroyed parts of the capital Kathmandu and flattened villages across a wide swath of the country.
Brigadier General Paul Kennedy of the U.S. Marine Corps told Reuters the six military aircraft, including two helicopters, will arrive from Saturday, accompanied by 100 marines and lifting equipment under an agreement reached with Nepal’s government earlier in the week.
The U.S. military would help manage the growing piles of relief supplies clogging Nepal’s only international airport, located in Kathmandu, which has struggled to distribute all the aid arriving from around the world since the earthquake.
“What you don’t want to do is build up a mountain of supplies,” blocking space for planes or more supplies, Kennedy said.
The United Nations has said 8 million of Nepal’s 28 million people were affected by the quake, with at least 2 million needing tents, water, food and medicines over the next three months.
Kennedy’s own flight on a C-130 cargo plane was close to “a fuel emergency” because it had to spend some time circling over Kathmandu after a long flight from his base in Okinawa, Japan, on Wednesday, he said.
The general said the plan was part of a long practiced earthquake response in the most populated area of Nepal.
“Nepal serves as the worst-case scenario for military planners,” Kennedy said on Friday, speaking at the American Club in Kathmandu, in a converted dance fitness studio now decorated with maps and occupied by a team of marines working on laptops.
“It is land-locked and there are only a small number of useable airfields that will handle military-sized aircraft,” Kennedy said.
Experts have long predicted that a powerful earthquake in Kathmandu would kill up to 100,000 people, and injure close to a million, requiring a formidable international response. In the event, the toll was much lower.
Kennedy did not say how extensive the U.S. presence in Nepal would grow after the initial arrival of four vertical take-off Osprey aircraft, two Bell Hueys and equipment such as forklift trucks to help move relief supplies at the airport.
Teams of soldiers carrying portable radars and including airstrip repair experts, will be sent to enable two provincial airports to receive heavy transport flights day and night.
The airports being considered to relieve the pressure on the international airport include one at trekking destination Pokhara and another near the birthplace of Buddha.
“Those are the ones capable of (handling) larger aircraft,” he said.
He said the United States would not be involved in air-traffic operations at Kathmandu airport, which would raise questions of sovereignty.
“When you control the international gateway to any country, the last thing you really want to cede is the air tower, because they control who is coming and who is bringing what,” he said.
(Story corrects venue to American Club, paragraph 9)
Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan