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Aid workers must declare travel plans
Updated: 2005-01-12 20:24

Indonesia ordered aid workers and journalists on Wednesday to declare travel plans or face expulsion from the country's tsunami-devastated Aceh province as authorities moved to reassert control of the rebellion-wracked area.

Security concerns threaten to hamper efforts to deliver aid to the province on the northern tip of Sumatra island, where more than 100,000 people were killed and tens of thousands left homeless or in need. The United Nations has been running the relief effort, appealing to donors attending a conference in Geneva to honor the unprecedented $4 billion in pledges to help victims of the Dec. 26 disaster.

The tsunami devastated a region where separatists have been fighting for an independent state for decades. Indonesia's military chief offered the rebels a cease-fire on Tuesday, matching a unilateral one already declared by the insurgents.

The military has nevertheless warned that rebels could rob aid convoys and use refugee camps as hideouts but has yet to offer evidence to back its claims.

"It is important to note that the government would be placed in a very difficult position if any foreigner who came to Aceh to assist in the aid effort was harmed through the acts of irresponsible parties," the Indonesian government said in a statement.

Asked if those who failed to register with the government before traveling outside the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, would be expelled, Welfare Minister Alwi Shihab said: "I think that is one possibility."

Prime Minister John Howard described Indonesia's demand as "a good idea."

"It is very, very important that in the process of giving full effect to this magnificent international response, that we recognize the difficulties in Aceh, but that we don't overreact to them and we don't dramatize them," he told reporters.

But Australian National University defense expert Clive Williams said the Indonesians wanted to keep close tabs on foreigners to conceal military corruption, not because of rebel danger.

"The big problem with dealing with (the military) in Aceh is that they're involved in a lot of corruption there and the reason I think they don't want people to go to some areas is because they're involved in human rights abuses in those areas," Williams said.

Before the magnitude-9.0 temblor touched off the tsunami, foreigners were banned from the area, and Wednesday's demand underlined the unease with which Indonesia has faced the aid operation, replete with civilian aid workers and foreign soldiers.

Wary of Indonesia's sensitivities, U.S. Marines, diverted here from duty in Iraq, have scaled back their plans to send hundreds of troops ashore to build roads and clear rubble. Col. Tom Greenwood, commander of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, said earlier this week that they would instead keep only a "minimal footprint."

In a major compromise, the Marines agreed not to carry guns while on Indonesian soil and for the vast majority of troops to return to ships stationed off the coast after each day's operations. The bulk of the Marines' mission has become ferrying aid workers and transporting food from the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard.

The Marines flew a French medical team to the shattered city of Calang by helicopter Wednesday and delivered supplies to Indonesian troops in Meulaboh to the south. Navy crews based on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln have flown hundreds of relief missions in the past two weeks.

U.N. agencies said they didn't expect Jakarta's order to affect their operations because their security officers already work in close contact with Indonesia's military.

"It could change the situation of (non-governmental organizations) who are moving around like private persons," said Mals Nyberg, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commission for Refugees. "I guess that's what soldiers want to control — that people are moving in conflict areas just like tourists."

Nyberg said Indonesian bureaucracy had eased in recent days, allowing the organization to get permission faster to run helicopter flights to outlying regions.

Getting help to the neediest is already a logistical nightmare, with roads washed away or blocked by downed trees. A bottleneck of round-the-clock aid flights on Sumatra forced authorities to open a new airport this week on the nearby island of Sabang.

But in New York, a senior official in the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs was upbeat on the progress of aid deliveries following the disaster that struck 11 nations in Asia and Africa.

In Sri Lanka, "the overall relief effort ... has really gone over the hump," Kevin Kennedy told reporters Tuesday. "They think they have a good grip on things .... The food assistance, if that can be used as a barometer ... has been delivered to all the affected people in Sri Lanka."

But he said some villages along the hard-hit west coast of Sumatra had yet to be reached. He said the U.N.'s World Food Program was already delivering food assistance to 300,000 people on the island.

While pledges have poured in, Jan Egeland, the U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, warned in Geneva that the United Nations does "not yet have the cash in hand required to meet even the most urgent needs," and called on governments to honor their promises of aid.

Meanwhile, officials from the Group of Seven, the world's leading industrialized nations, were to meet in Paris later Wednesday to discuss a proposal to ease the debt repayment requirements of tsunami-hit countries.

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