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US relief copter crashes in Banda Aceh
Updated: 2005-01-10 20:07

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia - A U.S. helicopter on a relief mission crashed in a rice paddy 500 yards from the Banda Aceh airport Monday, injuring two servicemen. Schools opened for the first time since the Dec. 26 tsunami, but many of the 150,000 lives the epic waves claimed were children, and thousands of desks sat empty.

Rescuers try to carry out injured crew members from a crashed helicopter in Banda Aceh, capital of Indonesia's Aceh Province Monday, Jan. 10, 2005. [Xinhua]
Workers, meanwhile, struggled to recover 50,000 bodies the government said were "scattered" throughout the region.

The U.S. military said the Seahawk helicopter "executed a hard landing" and that there was no evidence it was shot down near the airport in Banda Aceh, capital of Indonesia's hard-hit Aceh province and the hub of international aid operations. Lt. Cmdr. John M. Daniels blamed the crash on a "possible mechanical failure."

He said one person fractured an ankle and the other dislocated his hip. The other eight suffered "no significant injuries," he said.

"There was no fire ball but a little smoke. It landed on its side," said Capt. Joe Plenzler, adding that the helicopter's propeller was twisted from the impact. Fifteen Seahawk helicopters from the Lincoln group have been flying up to nine hours a day on aid missions. Normally they fly a maximum of three to four hours a day.

The crash came amid heightened security concerns in several tsunami-hit areas with ethnic rebellions — particularly in Aceh, where rebels have waged a separatist war in the province for nearly three decades. United Nations staff in Aceh are on high alert, and armed guards patrol their compounds amid fears of rebel attacks.

Aftershocks from the massive earthquake that spawned the killer waves continued to rattle residents in the hardest-hit countries. A 6.2-magnitude temblor sent people scrambling from their homes early Monday in Banda Aceh; no injuries or damage were reported.

Indonesian authorities promised to speed up the grim task of recovering and burying the dead. Welfare Minister Alwi Shihab said 58,281 bodies had been buried in the shattered area on the northern tip of Sumatra island. He said some 50,000 more are "scattered" around the region.

Some corpses are still trapped in collapsed buildings and rotting under debris in canals and rivers. Their stench still hangs over some areas of the provincial capital.

In the latest sign life is slowly returning to normal, children returned to school in Indonesia and Sri Lanka for the start of the new term — long before many institutions damaged in the disaster can provide proper education. Social workers hope the resumption of studies will help children overcome the trauma of the catastrophe.

About 80 students, some accompanied by their parents, showed up at state-run Vidyaloka, in Galle, Sri Lanka, a tiny fraction of the 2,400 who are registered. Some had no uniforms.

In a rare happy story, a 22-year-old Indonesian, Ari Afrizal, was rescued at sea sometime late last week by the United Arab Emirates-registered AL Yamamah, said Sasheila Paramsothy, a spokeswoman for the shipping harbor Westport Malaysia.

Ari was swept out to sea when the tsunami hit his home in Aceh, Paramsothy said, adding that the ship crew has not provided other details.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was assessing damage in the Maldives, a low-lying string of coral atolls in the Indian Ocean that lost 82 people. The United Nations is now coordinating humanitarian relief efforts in all the countries affected by the disaster and is taking that responsibility "very, very seriously," Annan said.

A senior Navy officer involved in the humanitarian aid mission said the U.S. military is likely to remain in tsunami-devastated areas for an extended period.

"I don't see an end to this for a long, long time," Capt. Larry Burt said of the American presence on Sumatra island. Burt is the commander of the air wing aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln.

For more than a week, U.S. military helicopters have been rushing food, water and medical supplies to areas inaccessible to other aid worker and in desperate need.

Indonesian military chief Endriartono Sutarto told The Associated Press that his forces are not conducting offensive operations against Acehnese rebels despite reports they've attacked aid convoys and even briefly kidnapped Indonesian relief workers.

Sutarto said the workers were rescued by Indonesian forces but gave no further details.

Indonesia's military warned aid workers Sunday that rebels in Aceh were taking shelter in camps for survivors, but the government dismissed those claims Monday. The government also said rebels were not responsible for a shooting near the main U.N. compound on Sunday, contradicting earlier assertions by the country's military and police.

Welfare Minister Alwi Shihab said a troubled Indonesian soldier, not a rebel gunman, was responsible for the burst of gunfire. The soldier was in custody, Shihab said.

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