South Asia tsunami information   |   Information on Aceh

Aceh leader asks troops to stay

14 January 2005

The acting governor of Aceh has asked foreign troops and aid workers to stay and provide "long-term support" for victims of the tsunami despite growing pressure from the Indonesian Government for all foreign troops to leave by the end of March.

The vice-governor of the province, Azwar Abu Bakar, said he was "frightened of being abandoned in less than a month facing such a big disaster" and wanted foreign military and aid groups to remain until the emergency had passed. "I really need long-term support from these organisations," he said yesterday.

His remarks are strongly at odds with those of Indonesia's Vice-President, Jusuf Kalla, who said on Wednesday that foreign forces should leave Indonesia by the end of March, three months after the tsunami struck and killed as many as 130,000 people in Aceh and made at least 300,000 homeless.

Indonesia's moves to limit the time foreign forces remain in Aceh and to restrict foreigners' movements outside the region's main cities, Banda Aceh and Meulaboh, have caused concern in the White House, at the United Nations and among aid groups.

The Indonesian military has been fighting rebels in Aceh although the rebels have declared a ceasefire to help with the aid effort. This was formally welcomed yesterday by Mr Kalla.

The White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, said yesterday the US was seeking clarification on the deadline. "Obviously I think that we want to make sure that there is rapid and immediate relief provided to all the affected persons," he said.

Margareta Wahlstrom, the UN's deputy relief co-ordinator, has met Indonesian officials to clarify the new rules and assess the impact of Mr Kalla's statement on Wednesday.

The chief executive of World Vision Australia, Tim Costello, said the time limit could have an impact on the delivery of aid.

"It complicates the situation for us," he told ABC radio.

The Federal Government said yesterday it had not been informed of a deadline, even as Indonesia's ambassador to Australia, Imron Cotan, reaffirmed the March end date.

A spokesman for the Defence Minister, Robert Hill, said the Government had only seen media reports of Jakarta's comments.

"We'll make a contribution as long as we are needed, and the time-line of that contribution will be determined in conjunction with the Indonesian authorities," Senator Hill's spokesman said.

"We have said from day one we are there at the invitation of Indonesia, and we will do whatever's necessary for as long as we're needed."

Mr Cotan said his Government had "carefully assessed the situation [and] that after three months will be able to take over all relief efforts. His spokesman said this meant foreign troops would have to leave but, some aid workers would be allowed to stay behind under UN supervision.

Although thousands of bodies still lie in Banda Aceh's streets and work has barely begun on the refugee camps set to house 400,000 people, there are growing calls within the Indonesian Government for an even quicker departure of foreigners.

The push to get foreign troops out fast is partly driven by nationalist politicians and the military. But according to some Westerners close to the Government, the deadline and new requirements for aid workers to register and report to authorities are an attempt by Jakarta to regain control over the aid effort.

More foreign troops are arriving in Aceh, with the Australian supply ship HMAS Kanimbla reaching Banda Aceh yesterday with about 400 troops and earthmoving equipment.

Indonesia's Welfare Minister, Alwi Shihab, who is co-ordinating the relief effort, told Al-Jazeera television yesterday that Indonesia expected to have enough infrastructure in place before the end of March. He said some people in Jakarta were worried about having soldiers from so many nations in Aceh.

The spokesman for Indonesia's defence forces, General Sjafrie Samsuddin, said the deadline was "the policy of the Government" and that the armed forces supported the Government.

He confirmed that the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln had been barred from running training flights in Indonesian airspace. The ship's helicopters fly most of the relief missions on Aceh's west coast.

Matthew Moore and Cynthia Banham, with agencies

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