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Gunfire underscores tsunami relief dangers
Updated: 2005-01-09 23:21

Gunfire echoed through the main tsunami-hit city on Indonesia's Sumatra island Sunday, underscoring the threat to the scores of foreigner aid workers, while a tropical downpour lashed the airport in the provincial capital, turning a major hub for relief supplies into a muddy mess.

Meanwhile, hundreds of people protested in Sri Lanka's Tamil-dominated north after U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan agreed to a government request that he not visit tsunami-stricken areas under Tamil rebel control.

Two weeks after walls of water flattened wide swaths of coastland around the Indian Ocean, people were still emerging from isolated village and bodies were being pulled from the mud and debris as the death toll in 11 countries passed 150,000.

Indonesian authorities blamed separatist rebels for the shooting near the U.N. compound in Banda Aceh, where relief workers have gathered to help survivors of the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami that killed more than 150,000 people in Africa and Asia.

Violence in tsunami-ravaged Sri Lanka also raised security concerns. Christians and Hindus clashed in the eastern part of the country where a massive aid effort is under way, killing at least three people and injuring 37, although no relief workers were injured in either incident.

Clashes between Hindus and Christians are rare since both groups belong the Tamil minority and believe they are oppressed by the country's Buddhist Sinhalese majority.

Elsewhere, about 400 Sri Lankans gathered in a peaceful protest Sunday opposite the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees office in the predominantly Tamil city of Jaffna, demanding that Annan visit the northern region to inspect damage caused by the tsunami.

Annan said Sunday that he hoped it would not strain relations between the United Nations and the rebel group.

"I'm hoping to come back and be able to visit all areas of the country, not only those repaired, but also to celebrate peace," he said. "The U.N. is not here to take sides."

The Tigers, who have fought a 20-year war for a Tamil homeland, invited Annan to tour the northern province. But government officials said they could not guarantee the U.N. chief's safety.

U.N. officials in Indonesia downplayed the shooting, which took place near the home of a deputy provincial police chief, saying there was no indication the gunfire targeted efforts to feed the disaster's hungry and homeless.

"We don't believe that aid workers are targets," said Joel Boutroue, a U.N. relief official in Aceh. "We were told by guards that it was probably one person shooting a few rounds and that was it."

Indonesian officials regularly blame Free Aceh Movement rebels for shootings and violence in Aceh, even if there is sometimes little evidence of their involvement.

The rebels have waged a separatist war in Aceh for nearly three decades. Thousands have been killed. There was an unofficial truce after last month's disaster, which left more than 100,000 dead in the province, but a series of recent skirmishes have prompted Indonesia's military to step up patrols for the guerrillas.

Adding to security concerns is the appearance of Laskar Mujahidin, an extremist group with alleged links to al-Qaida. The group, which has set up an aid camp, says it is there to help and won't target foreigners, but its reassurances haven't dampened concerns.

The U.S. military, which says it has about 150 service personnel on the ground in Sumatra and 8,000 offshore, said aid workers must remain vigilant while working in restive areas.

"Security is a constant planning factor in all that we do," U.S. Army aid coordinator Maj. Nelson Chang said.

Rain pounded relief workers Sunday, soaking the Banda Aceh airport and the cardboard boxes of aid piled up on the tarmac. Scores of tents where aid workers and soldiers camped had become a quagmire.

It's the middle of the rainy season in Indonesia and the pounding downpours could further complicate a relief effort already hamstrung by damaged infrastructure, including roads and bridges washed away.

Staggered by the scale of the disaster, aid officials said they may have to feed as many as 2 million survivors a day for six months.

World leaders have been streaming into the region in an attempt to better assess the needs of tens of thousands of people.

World governments, led by Australia and Germany, have pledged nearly $4 billion in aid — the biggest relief package ever. The United States has pledged $350 million, which President Bush called only an "initial commitment" and essentially a line of credit that can be spent as American relief officials identify needs.

The World Bank said it will consider significantly boosting its aid, perhaps to as much as $1.5 billion. It has already pledged $175 million in assistance, but bank President James Wolfensohn said he was flexible.

"We can go up to even $1 billion to $1.5 billion, depending on the needs ... our immediate focus is to provide relief to the affected people," he said at a news conference.

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