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Indonesia Ups Tsunami Death Toll by 7,000

Indonesia Ups Tsunami Death Toll by 7,000

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BAKUY, Indonesia (AP) -- An American admiral dismissed fears that the U.S. military is ending its relief effort for tsunami victims too soon, as a U.N. agency delivered aid on its own for the first time Sunday -- a sign of civilian groups preparing to fill the gap as militaries pull out. Indonesia raised its death toll from the disaster by as many as 7,000 people.

U.S. military helicopters from the USS Abraham Lincoln's five-ship battle group have been vital in getting aid to remote towns and villages in the ravaged western coast of Indonesia's Aceh province, cut off when roads were torn up and bridges crushed by the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami.

Many aid workers in Aceh province worry that last week's announcement by the U.S. military that it would immediately start scaling back and handing over operations to other nations, the United Nations and aid groups was premature.

"The bottom line is: I don't share that same concern," Rear Adm. William Crowder, commander of the USS Abraham Lincoln, told The Associated Press in an interview. "We're reaching a point where there's going to be a transition to sustain relief and not an acute emergency gotta-have-it-now relief that we saw in the first couple of weeks."

On Sunday, a 400-ton landing vessel carrying World Food Program aid was due to arrive in Aceh's coastal Calang city, said program spokesman Gerald Bourke -- the first time the U.N. agency has used its own ship to deliver aid in the disaster. Thousands of victims are at a makeshift camp among the ruins of the destroyed city.

Two Indonesian ministries tracking the death toll in the country announced increased counts -- though they continued to differ greatly as they have for weeks amid poor coordination between agencies difficulties at getting an accurate tally.

The Health Ministry raised its estimate of the toll by 7,661 to 173,981. The Social Affairs Ministry increased its estimate Sunday by 4,700 to 114,978. Both ministries say they base their figures on reports from officials on Sumatra island and estimates based on census figures and the numbers of people unaccounted for.

Indonesia was the worst hit of 11 nations affected by the disaster. The increase brings the total death around the Indian Ocean to between 157,781 and 228,771 people.

Meanwhile, the Indonesian government and separatist rebels in Aceh agreed to meet this week in Finland to discuss a formal cease-fire -- and possibly lay a framework for restarting the peace process that foundered nearly two years, Finnish officials and sources close to the negotiations said Sunday.

Separatists have been fighting for years for independence for Aceh, a territory on the northern tip of Sumatra island. But many have hoped that dealing with the massive destruction wreaked by the tsunami could bring the two sides closer.

Former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari's office said the two sides were planning to hold talks this week in Helsinki. The office of the Crisis Management Initiative, or CMI, headed by Ahtisaari, said it could not disclose any additional information because of the "delicate nature" of the talks.

The Finnish government confirmed it is aware of the peace efforts.

An official long involved in bringing the two sides together said in a telephone interview that the talks will probably start Thursday.

Clashes have continued in Aceh despite an informal truce announced by both sides shortly after the Dec. 26 tsunami. On Sunday the Indonesian military said it had killed 200 rebels in the last four weeks.

But in Sri Lanka, hopes of a similar warming between the government and Tamil Tiger rebels were souring amid increasing acrimony as Norway tried to get the two sides to form a joint body to oversee distribution of aid. The Tigers have accused the government of limiting aid to areas under rebel control.

A Tiger leader reportedly complained to Norwegian envoys that the Sri Lankan military was taking foreign relief donations to buy weapons -- bringing a furious denial Sunday by the military.

"Such terrible lies can come only from them (the Tigers)" said military spokesman Brig. Daya Ratnayake.

The pro-rebel TamilNet Web site said rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran raised the issue with Norway's Foreign Minister Jan Petersen on Saturday. Peterson met Sunday with Sri Lanka's foreign ministry to try to work out a way to ensure aid is distributed fairly.

The World Food Program shipment to Sumatra came on the same day that the Indonesian government said the emergency phase of Aceh relief operations is almost over, and that civilian aid workers should soon replace troops in delivering food and shelter to survivors.

"We are now opening up isolated areas through ground transportation, so we don't need more helicopters," said Welfare Minister Alwi Shihab. We need more pickups to go all around isolated villages."

Touring one of 50 sites where shelters are being built for 100,000 survivors, Shihab said it was "only logical" that the U.S., Singaporean and other foreign forces, who came in to help after the disaster, begin pulling out.

"The emergency stage is almost behind us, so the military will no longer give their contribution," he said. "Civilians are more effective."

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

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