Britain's Prince Charles sought to console Sri Lankan tsunami survivors yesterday during a brief tour of the island's devastated east coast, expressing dismay over the extent of the damage and loss of lives in this former British colony.
After arriving by helicopter in the Batticaloa region, the prince met survivors and Red Cross volunteers. He told them he was "terribly upset" by the devastation from the Dec. 26 tsunami, which killed more than 31,000 people on the island and left more 1 million homeless.
Charles asked Tamil fisherman Vellupillai Sellaiya if he had received any help in recovering his business. Watched by Sri Lankan officials, Sellaiya told him not yet, but that the government had promised to help.
The government has been accused of being slow in delivering aid to the northeast, home to most of Sri Lanka's 3.2 million minority ethnic Tamils. The government has denied the charge.
The prince visited a damaged Hindu temple, where he spoke with a priest. He was given a garland and had a round, orange mark painted on his forehead -- part of Hindu tradition to bless temple visitors.
He then met with 10 women, all Red Cross volunteers, who have been clearing rubble from destroyed homes on a sandbank between a beach and lagoon.
"I feel awful," Britain's Press Association quoted him as saying. "All I have done is interrupt their very hard work. You've got a lot more to do when I'm gone."
He told one volunteer who lost her home: "I do hope you can rebuild your house, perhaps somewhere else."
The prince arrived at Colombo's international airport after dawn yesterday, and about 30 minutes later boarded a Sri Lankan air force helicopter for Batticaloa, where he landed at an abandoned soccer stadium. There was heavy military presence in the area.
"It's good to see Prince Charles making the extra effort to go to the more remote areas," said David Crawford, head of the British aid group Oxfam in Sri Lanka.
"Anything that shows the people here that they haven't been forgotten is very welcome," Crawford said.
Parts of Batticaloa are controlled by Tamil Tiger rebels, but Prince Charles had no plans to meet with the guerrillas, banned as a terrorist organization in Britain since 2001.
Last week, Sri Lanka's government and the Tigers marked the three years since they signed a Norway-brokered ceasefire that halted fighting and restored a degree of normalcy to the island.
Later yesterday, Charles met with President Chandrika Kumaratunga and British diplomatic staff before departing for Australia.
Kumaratunga briefed Charles on the government's reconstruction plans and peace process, a presidential statement said.
Charles assured the president that Britain would continue to provide support for tsunami victims and "said he was confident Sri Lanka would be able to rebuild the lives of people who've lost their dwellings and sources of revenue," the statement said.
The visit was the prince's first to Sri Lanka since 1998, when he attended celebrations marking the country's 50 years of independence.