| A Russian rescuer drinks coconut water as he takes a break in the village of Kalamulla in southwestern Sri Lanka. (AFP)
Banda Aceh, Jan. 2 (Reuters): Help finally came from the sky today for Indonesian villages washed flat by the tsunami a week ago, but no amount of aid could stop the loss of life.
Starving people besieged US and Indonesian military helicopters carrying food and clean water that managed to land for the first time along Sumatra's northwest coast.
Over half the 129,817 known victims of the killer waves perished there.
'I can't count how many bodies I have seen here,' said Zurhan, a bulldozer driver trying to clear Banda Aceh's main parade ground who wore a wool sweater over his head to filter out the stench. 'Look at the garbage. I'm sure there are many more there.'
UN officials said it could be two more weeks before some stricken communities were reached, giving dehydration, disease and hunger time to add their own toll. UNICEF said reports were coming in of children starting to die of pneumonia in the area, where Indonesia said so many were dead in one city it would be abandoned as a ghost town.
In places near Banda Aceh, capital of north Sumatra's Aceh province, wild scenes meant aid deliveries had to be aborted. 'A few helicopters have tried to land in the coastal villages outside of Banda Aceh but mobs on the ground desperate for the supplies prevented them from landing,' the UN World Food Programme said.
In Sri Lanka, which lost 30,000 citizens, nature twisted the knife as torrential rains flooded refugee camps. 'We already lost our homes. We came here then the rains came and took away our bundles, everything we had left,' said G.K. Sambasivam, 65, dozens of whose relatives are missing.
The US aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, now anchored off Indonesia's Sumatra island, boosted aid operations. 'A major change has been the arrival of the American ship with helicopters which have been able to reach the west coast,' said Michael Elmquist, head of UN disaster relief in Indonesia.
'The logistical situation is looking a lot better than it did a couple of days ago ... Things are improving slowly.'
Captain Larry Burt, commander of a helicopter air wing on the Lincoln, said he had seen bodies floating 32 km out to sea. His flights are part of the world's largest post-war aid operation, with $2 billion pledged so far, battling a logistical nightmare to deliver aid to some five million people.
UN secretary-general Kofi Annan is due to visit Indonesia on Thursday, where he will probably issue a world appeal for more relief at a world aid conference.
Forty countries lost nationals in addition to the 13 directly hit as far away as East Africa. A handful of tourists had Thai elephants, and their apparent sense for disaster, to thank for their lives.
The animals felt the earthquake and sensed the tsunamis coming, their keepers said. They began to trumpet inconsolably, making a sound akin to crying, disobeyed orders to calm down and ran to the safety of high ground.
Six jumbos, who featured in Oliver Stone's recent blockbuster Alexander, were also trucked in from an elephant camp 800 km north of Thailand's shattered Phuket island, to clear debris so rescue teams could retrieve corpses.
'The elephant is like a four-wheel drive. They walk in the forest all their life,' said trainer Laitonglian Meepan as he shouted commands at the beasts. Some areas were too remote to transport heavy earth-moving equipment, making the task almost impossible for overwhelmed rescue teams.
With nearly 4,000 people still unaccounted for, the elephants will continue their recovery work into next week, the trainer said.