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U.S. to Scale Back Tsunami Relief Efforts

U.S. to Scale Back Tsunami Relief Efforts

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BANDA ACEH, Indonesia (AP) -- The U.S. military -- the largest group aiding tsunami survivors -- said Thursday it will immediately begin scaling back its relief operations. A barrage of gunfire sent survivors diving for cover at a refugee camp in an Indonesian region long torn by a war between separatists and the government.

In Japan, nations at a U.N. conference rallied behind plans for a network of buoys to warn of future killer waves in the Indian Ocean.

Adm. Thomas Fargo, commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, said the U.S. military "will start right now transferring functions to the appropriate host nations and international organizations."

About 15,000 American troops have been deployed to tsunami-hit nations, where huge waves spawned by a massive earthquake swept away coastal settlements on Dec. 26, killing at least 157,000 people. Most of the soldiers have been sent to worst-hit Sumatra island in Indonesia, particularly the province of Aceh at the island's northern tip.

The timetable for ending up the operation -- Fargo suggested it would be wrapped up within 60 days -- would apparently meet requests by Indonesian officials that foreign troops to leave Aceh province by the end of March.

Though the Americans have been welcomed warmly in Aceh -- despite its history of resistance to outside forces -- the U.S. presence has raised concerns among many Indonesians that troops will remain, given the vast network of permanent American military outposts around the globe.

At a news conference in Malaysia, Fargo dismissed that possibility and said the handover would begin, saying the missions in Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and other affected countries have moved from the "immediate relief phase ... toward rehabilitation and reconstruction."

Fargo did not say how long it would take for U.S. troops to pull out completely -- but he cited U.S. military aid efforts after a powerful cyclone struck Bangladesh in 1991, which were wound down after about 60 days.

"That is probably a pretty good benchmark" for the U.S. military's current tsunami operations, he said.

The shooting outside the city of Banda Aceh underscored the fragile security situation in Aceh province, where separatist guerrillas and government forces have been fighting for 27 years.

A series of bursts of gunfire went off in the hills near the relief camp on the hilly mountain resort of Lambreh. Among the 200 refugees at the camp, mothers cradling babies dived for cover when they heard the shooting. Some of the survivors screamed or whispered prayers for their safety.

"I cannot imagine a more terrible nightmare," said Revita, a 28-year-old midwife who broke down in tears after the shooting.

Nevertheless, she said she had no plans to flee the camp, which has no security guards. "I have to stay here and help. There are so many pregnant women," said Revita, who like many Indonesians only uses one name.

Neither the rebels nor soldiers were visible from the camp during the shooting. No refugees were injured, and the gunfire did not appear to be directed at the camp.

Aceh rebels and the Indonesian army have declared an informal cease-fire to help the humanitarian effort for the tens of thousands affected by the tsunami, which tore apart Banda Aceh and towns along Aceh's western coast. Still, there have been sporadic reports of fighting.

"It's a rebel stronghold. We held an operation because the rebels were making trouble," said Maj. Benny Suharto, the local deputy commander, who provided no further details.

Rebel spokesman Tengku Muharram said the military often shoots in the air to provoke his men to shoot back. But after the tsunami, the rebels have not launched attacks and only returned fire in self defense, although he has yet to receive reports of this specific shooting, he said.

"I told my men not to take the bait. And we only shoot in self-defense," Muharram said. "This is a time of tragedy for the Acehnese."

Indonesia's military killed at least 120 rebels in the province in the past two weeks, despite the cease-fire, Indonesia's army chief of staff said Thursday.

In a separate incident, an Indonesian soldier in Aceh fired into the air Thursday, narrowly missing the rotor blades of a U.S. helicopter delivering aid to survivors, witnesses said. Nobody was hurt, and the soldier apparently was trying to control a crowd of up to 25 refugees in the coastal village of Panga that streamed toward the helicopter to grab relief supplies.

About 100 volunteer workers from across Indonesia gathered at the ruins of a seaside mosque near Banda Aceh for prayers to mark the start of Eid al-Adha, or Feast of Sacrifice, which ends the annual hajj pilgrimage period.

The Bairturrahim Mosque is one of the few structures standing in the Ulee-Lheue village, which is now a lifeless landscape of rubble and mangled cars.

At a U.N. conference in Kobe, Japan, participating nations discussed plans for a network to detect tsunamis in the Indian Ocean and warn coastal residents of the danger.

On the third day of the five-day meeting, delegates gave the go-ahead to start examining various proposals, including the one by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. UNESCO proposed a network of deep-sea buoys and regional communications centers that would cost $30 million and go into operation by mid-2006.

Eventually, U.S. officials say the Pacific warning system could also extend to the Mediterranean, Caribbean and other parts of the globe. A U.N. official, however, stressed that the United Nations, not the United States, would lead the effort.

In Germany, the government mourned victims of the tsunami in a solemn ceremony in parliament.

An empty chair, decorated with flowers, was placed between President Horst Koehler and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to symbolize the victims. Germany has so far confirmed the deaths of 60 of its citizens, with 615 missing.

"We mourn the German dead. And we also mourn the many dead from Indonesia and Sri Lanka, from India, Thailand and the other countries around the Indian Ocean," Koehler said at the ceremony in the Bundestag.

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

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