U.S. Scales Back Some Tsunami Aid Efforts
=Associated Press Writer
BANDA ACEH, Indonesia - U.S. Marines have scaled back their planned tsunami aid efforts after reaching a compromise with the government and agreeing not to carry weapons or set up a base camp on Indonesian soil, an American spokesman said Wednesday
The aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, which is leading the U.S. military's relief effort, steamed out of Indonesian waters Wednesday because the country declined to let the ship's fighter pilots use its airspace for training missions. Helicopters will still deliver aid to Sumatra's devastated coast, however.
Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla said foreign troops would be out of the country by the end of March.
"A three-month period is enough, even the sooner the better," Kalla said.
The moves underscore sensitivities in nationalistic Indonesia at having foreign military forces operating there, even in a humanitarian operation. They also come amid warnings from the Indonesian military that areas of tsunami-battered Aceh province may not be safe for aid workers.
The government ordered aid workers and journalists to declare travel plans or face expulsion from Aceh as authorities moved to reassert control of the rebellion-wracked area.
At a Paris meeting Wednesday, a French official said the world's wealthiest nations, including the United States, believe a temporary suspension of billions of dollars in debt repayments by tsunami-devastated countries will provide a necessary "breath of oxygen" for recovery and reconstruction from the Dec. 26 disaster that killed more than 150,000 people across southern Asia.
While three debtor countries — Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Seychelles — support the moratorium, Thailand does not because it fears the potential effect on its standing in international financial markets, French Finance Minister Herve Gaymard told RFI radio.
The proposed moratorium on debt repayments by tsunami-hit countries "was very quickly accepted" by the 19 creditor nations that make up the Paris Club, Gaymard said. The details on the moratorium were being finalized Wednesday.
Later, as the Paris Club met to sign off on the proposal, Gaymard told reporters the leading industrialized nations within the club regard the moratorium as "completely indispensable" for tsunami-hit countries "to overcome the immense difficulties."
Security concerns threaten to hamper efforts to deliver aid to Aceh province on the northern tip of Sumatra island, where more than 100,000 people were killed and tens of thousands left homeless or in need. The United Nations (news - web sites) has been running the relief effort, appealing to donors attending a conference in Geneva to honor the unprecedented $4 billion in pledges to help victims.
Separatists in the Aceh region have been fighting for an independent state for decades. Indonesia's military chief offered the rebels a cease-fire Tuesday, matching a unilateral one already declared by the insurgents.
The military has nevertheless warned that rebels could rob aid convoys and use refugee camps as hideouts but has yet to offer evidence to back its claims.
"It is important to note that the government would be placed in a very difficult position if any foreigner who came to Aceh to assist in the aid effort was harmed through the acts of irresponsible parties," the government said in a statement.
Asked if those who failed to register with the government before traveling outside the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, would be expelled, Welfare Minister Alwi Shihab said: "I think that is one possibility."
Australian Prime Minister John Howard described Indonesia's demand as "a good idea."
"It is very, very important that in the process of giving full effect to this magnificent international response, that we recognize the difficulties in Aceh, but that we don't overreact to them and we don't dramatize them," he said.
But Australian National University defense expert Clive Williams said the Indonesians wanted to keep close tabs on foreigners to conceal military corruption and not protect them from rebels.
"The big problem with dealing with (the military) in Aceh is that they're involved in a lot of corruption there and the reason I think they don't want people to go to some areas is because they're involved in human rights abuses in those areas," Williams said.
Before the tsunami, foreigners were banned from the area, and Wednesday's demand highlighted the unease with which Indonesia has faced the aid operation, replete with civilian aid workers and foreign soldiers.
Wary of Indonesia's sensitivities, U.S. Marines scaled back plans to send hundreds of troops ashore to build roads and clear rubble. Col. Tom Greenwood, commander of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, said earlier this week they would instead keep only a "minimal footprint."
In a major compromise, the Marines agreed not to carry guns while on Indonesian soil and that the vast majority of troops would return to ships stationed off the coast after each day's operations. The bulk of the Marines' mission has become ferrying aid workers and transporting food from the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard.
The Marines flew a French medical team to the shattered city of Calang by helicopter Wednesday and delivered supplies to Indonesian troops in Meulaboh to the south. Navy crews based on the Abraham Lincoln have flown hundreds of relief missions in the past two weeks.
Under U.S. Navy (news - web sites) rules, pilots of carrier-based warplanes cannot go longer than 14 days without flying or their skills are considered to have degraded too far. Since the Abraham Lincoln has been stationed off Sumatra since Jan. 1, the carrier moved out of Indonesian waters so its pilots could conduct their training flights in international airspace.
U.N. agencies said they did not expect Jakarta's order to affect their operations because their security officers already work in close contact with Indonesia's military.
"It could change the situation of (non-governmental organizations) who are moving around like private persons," said Mals Nyberg, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commission for Refugees. "I guess that's what soldiers want to control — that people are moving in conflict areas just like tourists."
Nyberg said Indonesian bureaucracy had eased in recent days, allowing the organization to get permission faster to run helicopter flights to outlying regions.
Getting help to the neediest is already a logistical nightmare, with roads washed away or blocked by downed trees.
Kevin Kennedy, a senior official in the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, was upbeat on the progress. In Sri Lanka, "the overall relief effort ... has really gone over the hump," Kennedy told reporters Tuesday in New York. "They think they have a good grip on things. ... The food assistance, if that can be used as a barometer ... has been delivered to all the affected people in Sri Lanka."
But he said some villages along the hard-hit west coast of Sumatra had yet to be reached. He said the U.N.'s World Food Program was already delivering food assistance to 300,000 people on the island.
Indonesia tightens Aceh controls
Foreign troops helping the tsunami aid effort in Indonesia's Aceh province must leave by the end of March, the government in Jakarta has said.
Foreign aid workers and journalists in the ravaged province must also now register travel plans, officials said.
Correspondents say the army wants to re-establish control over Aceh, where it has been battling separatist rebels.
The restrictions came as creditor nations discuss whether to freeze debts owed by countries hit by the tsunami.
The so-called Paris Club, whose members include the UK, France, Germany, Japan, Russia and the US, is due to meet in the French capital on Wednesday.
A proposed debt freeze for some countries already has the support of several leading club members, but questions remain over the terms of any deal.
While the meeting will address the long-term needs of the tsunami victims, in the short term, the worst hit country, Indonesia, is being given vital support by foreign soldiers.
Foreign troops operating in, or due to arrive in, Aceh include those from the US, Singapore, Australia, and Japan.
Their helicopters are enabling aid to reach remote communities on Aceh's west coast which were worst hit by the tsunami.
The Indonesian authorities first said they would limit the movements of aid workers on Tuesday, but more details have now emerged of those restrictions.
In future, all foreigners will have to register at a foreign affairs desk in Banda Aceh and complete forms detailing their current and planned activities, as well as any travel plans outside the provincial capital of Banda Aceh and its suburbs, and the devastated town of Meulaboh.
In other developments:
* The UN educational, scientific and cultural agency, UNESCO, says a tsunami early warning system for the Indian Ocean could be up and running by the middle of next year
* Sri Lankan authorities are investigating a man's alleged attempt to sell two tsunami orphans
* Pop star Ricky Martin has met the Thai prime minister to discuss how he can help Thailand's victims
* India has allowed the UN to visit the Andaman and Nicobar islands to vaccinate children
* Religious leaders in Aceh have ruled that food does not need to be prepared according to Halal guidelines
The BBC's Andrew North, in Aceh, says that the regulations appear to have been imposed sporadically so far.
Some aid agencies have said they have not been informed of the new rules, while others have said they have been, but have not been restricted in their movements.
The head of the army, General Endriartono Sutarto, has told the BBC the move was necessary to protect foreigners from possible attacks by the separatist Free Aceh Movement (Gam).
The army and Gam have accused each other of breaking a temporary ceasefire imposed soon after the 26 December Indian Ocean tsunami hit. The military has also said the rebels have been stealing aid, though aid agencies have not reported any problems.
One aid agency working in the area, World Vision, said it did not expect the new restrictions to hamper its work. It said the announcement indicated the relief effort was entering a second, longer-term stage.
World Vision's James East told the BBC that an assessment team from his organisation took about 90 minutes to register with the authorities on Tuesday, and then was allowed to continue with its plans unhindered.
Before 26 December, Aceh was under emergency rule and was closed both to aid agencies and the international media, as Indonesia's military launched an offensive against the rebels, who are estimated to have lost more than 2,000 fighters over the past two years. Source