Tsunami-hit rebels urge ceasefire

Rebels in Indonesia’s tsunami-hit Aceh on called Thursday for ceasefire talks to help the aid effort as new restrictions on foreign relief workers in the province prompted the United States to demand clarification from Jakarta.

The move by the Free Aceh Movement came as political wrangling cast a shadow over humanitarian efforts in the area worst hit by the December 26 tsunamis, where more than 106 000 people died and thousands of bodies are still being recovered every day.

The rebels’ “prime minister in exile”, Malik Mahmud, said in a statement that his men are willing to sit down for discussions with Jakarta to ease fears about the safety of foreign humanitarian workers operating in Aceh.

Indonesia has cited the alleged threat of rebel violence to justify new restrictions in Aceh, requiring all foreigners to register and seek military escorts when travelling outside main towns.

Vice-President Yusuf Kalla has also said foreign troops should leave Aceh within three months—“in fact the sooner the better”.

The Indonesian military, meanwhile, announced that it will send thousands more soldiers into Aceh to help the tsunami relief efforts, bringing the total troop deployment there close to 50 000.

Asked if the soldiers will be used in the military’s battle against the rebels, spokesperson Major General Syafrie Syamsuddin said: “No, no, no, of course not.”

The rebels have pledged that aid workers will be safe and Mahmud said a unilateral ceasefire declared after the tsunamis still stands.

The armed forces of Australia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and the US have all rushed task forces to Aceh in the wake of the disaster that killed at least 106 500 Indonesians out of a total of more than 159 000 deaths in Asia and Africa.

Washington queries restrictions

In Washington, the US said it is demanding “clarification” of the new restrictions after the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, which serves as a key base for relief operations, had to move outside Indonesian territorial waters because Indonesians objected to US training flights.

US marines delivering aid to survivors were also forced to scale back their presence on shore and move to ships to address Indonesian sensitivities and security concerns.

“We are seeking further clarification about what that means,” White House spokesperson Scott McClellan told reporters.

He said the US military and civilian relief organisations are currently focused on the need to get aid to those who are suffering in the region.

“That’s what our focus will continue to be and that’s what the focus of the international relief organisations is in the area, as well,” McClellan pointed out.

The US ambassador to Indonesia also said the military taskforce will end its mission when Jakarta wants.

But the Pentagon is dispatching to Asia a top military official, who is expected to discuss the controversy with his Indonesian counterparts.

Admiral Thomas Fargo, head of the US Pacific Command, is due to tour the disaster region and assess the relief operation and its future needs.

Australia said on Thursday it has not been told of a time limit on its military’s aid work in Aceh.

“We are there as long as it takes to get the job done, but we are there at the invitation of the Indonesians,” a defence ministry spokesperson said.

On the ground, thousands of bodies are still being pulled out of the rubble in Aceh each day, with a lack of transport hampering the retrieval process, the government said.

The provincial authorities said 3 809 bodies were found and buried on Wednesday, 17 days after the 9,0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunamis struck.

The disaster will likely throw nearly two million more people into poverty in Asia, the Asian Development Bank said—one million of them in Indonesia alone.

In India, the number of poor is estimated to increase by 645 000, with Sri Lanka’s estimate at 250 000, the bank said in a statement.

About half of the houses in the Maldives were affected and about half the population of about 287 000 could fall below the poverty line, it said.

Debt freeze

The Paris Club, a 19-member informal cluster of some of the world’s richest creditor nations, offered an unconditional freeze on debt repayments for Indonesia, the Seychelles and Sri Lanka.

“This decision is an exceptional measure. It is justified by the scale of the catastrophe,” club president Jean-Pierre Joyuet told a news briefing after a conference in the French capital.

Indonesia’s foreign minister said it is considering the offer but is concerned it could damage its creditworthiness.

As the death toll approached 160 000 with more deaths reported by India and Sri Lanka, the international Red Cross nearly tripled its emergency appeal over six months to $155,3-million.

Thailand’s Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra warned that some of the country’s tsunami dead might never be found or identified, but voiced confidence that thousands of bodies in his country could be identified within a month.

A total of 5 313 people are confirmed dead in Thailand with another 3 254 missing, including 1 063 foreigners.—Sapa-AFP

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