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U.S. Faces Restrictions in Tsunami Effort

U.S. Faces Restrictions in Tsunami Effort

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BANDA ACEH, Indonesia (AP) -- The U.S. military faced tighter restrictions Wednesday as the Indonesian government sought to reassert control over foreign troops, relief workers and journalists in the tsunami-devastated region, which also has been the site of a rebel insurgency.

In Paris, the world's wealthiest nations said they support a moratorium on debt repayments by countries stricken by the Dec. 26 disaster that has killed more than 150,000 people.

The moves by the Indonesian government, aimed primarily at U.S. troops, underscore the nationalistic country's sensitivities at having foreign military forces operating there -- even in a humanitarian effort. They also come amid warnings from the Indonesian military that areas of tsunami-battered Aceh province may not be safe for aid workers.

Although hundreds of troops from Australia, Singapore, Germany and other nations are also helping the relief mission, the United States has the largest presence by far with about 13,000 -- almost all offshore. The Indonesian military is providing security for all of them.

The aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, which is leading the U.S. military's relief effort, steamed out of Indonesian waters Wednesday because the U.S. Navy only has permission from the Indonesians to fly aircraft into its airspace that are directly supporting the humanitarian operation, said Lt. Cmdr. John M. Daniels, spokesman for the Lincoln carrier strike group. Helicopters will still deliver aid to Sumatra's devastated coast, however.

Indonesia declined to let the ship's fighter pilots use its airspace for training missions. Under U.S. Navy 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.

Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla said foreign troops would be out of the country by March 31.

"A three-month period is enough, even the sooner the better," Kalla said.

The government also 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.

The White House said Wednesday it has asked the Indonesian government to explain the restrictions on aid workers and journalists.

"We'll seek further clarification from Indonesia about what this means," White House spokesman Scott McClellan. "We hope that the government of Indonesia and the military in Indonesia will continue the strong support they have provided to the international relief efforts so far."

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 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 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.

U.S. Marines have 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.

U.N. agencies said they did not expect Jakarta's order to affect their operations because their security officers already work closely 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 for helicopter flights to outlying regions.

Getting help to the neediest is already difficult, 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, said food assistance has been delivered to all the affected people in Sri Lanka.

But he said some villages on the hard-hit west coast of Sumatra had not been reached. He said the U.N. World Food Program was delivering aid to 300,000 people on the island.

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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