The death toll from the tsunami that devastated South and Southeast Asia last month has soared again.
Sri Lankan officials say another 7,000 people in remote areas of the country are known to have died in the Dec. 26 disaster. That brings the total number of deaths from the tsunami to more than 175,000.
Three weeks after the disaster, reconstruction plans are moving ahead. In Sri Lanka, the government announced plans to rebuild 15 towns on its southern and eastern coasts.
Prime Minister Paul Martin was in Sri Lanka on Monday as part of a nine-nation Asian tour.
On Monday he took a helicopter tour of some of the hardest-hit areas of the Sri Lankan coast. He also met with members of Canada's Disaster Assistance Response Team [DART], which is now running a clinic that treats up to 100 patients a day.
Martin also got to see the DART water purification system in action.
Canada's soldiers say it is gratifying work.
Delivering aid in Sri Lanka is an effort that is fraught with political problems. But Martin says Sri Lankan politics isn't preventing aid for tsunami victims from reaching areas of the country controlled by the Tamil Tiger rebels.
Martin says he received those assurances directly from the government, aid agencies and Tamil National Alliance politicians who speak for the rebel Tamil Tigers in the Sri Lankan parliament.
Martin says he also sought assurances that children orphaned by the tsunami aren't being recruited by the Tigers.
After meeting with representatives of the Tamil National Alliance Martin sounded confident. "They confirmed that the aid is being distributed equitably, but they want an ongoing monitoring of the situation," he said.
R. Sampanthan, leader of the Alliance, says aid is getting through, but peace talks in the long-standing civil war are stalled. And Sampanthan is skeptical the government in Colombo is sending all the aid it should to the Tamil-controlled north.
"Our 50-year experience [does] not permit us to have any faith whatsoever in the Sri Lankan government," said Sampanthan.
Martin sought assurances from the Tamil MPs that they didn't support the rumoured recruitment of children orphaned by the tsunami as soldiers. "I made the point quite strongly that ... the children should be going to school, they shouldn't be put into the army," said Martin.
Sampanthan says he's taken the matter up with the rebel leadership. But he accused the Sri Lankan government of doing far more harm to Tamil children during its bombing and shelling of Tamil-held areas during the 20-year civil war.
"It is possible the LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] lends a helping hand to some of these children and it could very well be, when such things happen, that is being described as child recruitment," said Sampanthan.
While Martin got answers from the Tamil leaders, he's been criticized just for meeting with them. The Tamil National Alliance is closely allied with the LTTE, which has been banned as a terrorist organization by the United States, Great Britain and Australia, but not Canada. Ottawa has only banned the Tigers' ability to raise money.
Two of the MPs Martin met with have been denied visas to Canada on the suspicion they were intending to raise money for the Tigers.
Conservative MP Jason Kenny has questioned Martin's judgment. "I find it troublesome. I know that the prime minister won't even meet with the government of Taiwan, because the PRC [People's Republic of China] is against it. He couldn't meet with these people in Canada, so it raises the question why should he be doing so here?"
Kenny believes domestic politics in Canada played a part in the decision. There are 250,000 Tamils living in the Toronto-area, and many help support as many as 10 ridings held by the Liberals.
Martin sidestepped questions about whether he was flirting with Tamil MPs in Sri Lanka to score points at home. He said that anyone who'd seen the devastation the tsunami has brought to thousands of Sri Lankans, including Tamils, wouldn't make political commentary.