US, UN want Jakarta to clarify aid restrictions
Leaders in the international tsunami aid effort expressed concern about how curbs on the movement of workers and a deadline for foreign troops to leave would affect relief in Indonesia's worst-hit Aceh province.
On Wednesday, rich creditor nations meeting in Paris agreed to freeze debt repayments for all affected nations, freeing badly-needed funds for rehabilitation.
Indonesia is the nation worst hit by the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami and owes about $48 billion. It would have to pay more than $3 billion in principal repayments alone this year -- about the same amount it says it needs to recover from the crisis.
"The suspension takes effect immediately," Jean-Pierre Jouyet, president of the Paris Club of creditor nations, told a news conference after the talks.
He said it would apply to those countries that wanted to accept it but did not immediately give any details.
At least 158,600 people in 13 Indian Ocean countries were killed in the disaster, the most widespread natural calamity in living memory. Tens of thousands are missing and millions of people have been deprived of food, clean water and shelter.
More than 106,000 died in Indonesia, 30,000 in Sri Lanka, 15,000 in India and 5,300 in Thailand.
U.S. officials said they were seeking clarification from Jakarta on a statement that it wanted the thousands of foreign troops helping organize the relief to leave by March.
The Indonesian government is edgy about a large foreign presence in an area where separatists have fought the army for three decades, although both sides have avoided major clashes since the tsunami.
"Obviously, I think that we want to make sure that there is rapid and immediate relief provided to all the affected persons," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.
"And that remains a priority for the United States, as well as the international relief organizations in the area. And so we'll seek further clarification from Indonesia about what this means."
The United Nations said it had met Indonesian officials about restrictions announced on the movement of aid workers in Aceh.
Margareta Wahlstrom of Sweden, the deputy U.N. relief coordinator, met Indonesian officials to get clarification "and assess the operational impacts, if any, of this announcement," said Kevin Kennedy, a senior official in the U.N. Office of Humanitarian Affairs.
Jakarta has said it cannot guarantee the safety of foreign workers outside the provincial capital Banda Aceh and the devastated city of Meulaboh, just 150 km (90 miles) from the epicenter of the magnitude 9 earthquake that set off the tsunami.
It has asked that they accept army escorts if moving outside these cities.
"We certainly well understand there has been a conflict in Aceh for the last quarter of a century," said Kennedy.
"However, we are concerned that any requirements that would create additional bottlenecks or delays or otherwise adversely reflect our operations need to be reviewed very carefully."
Acehnese rebels repeated a cease-fire offer to help efforts to rebuild the shattered region.
"The people in Aceh really need to be cared for," Malik Mahmud, the Free Aceh Movement's leader in exile, said at a news conference in Stockholm on Wednesday.
In Sri Lanka, dangers to children loomed as police arrested a 60-year-old man they said had tried to sell his orphaned grandchildren at a refugee camp. The boys, on offer at $500 each, were aged seven and nine.
India let the first global agency into the remote Andaman and Nicobar islands, many of which are off limits to outsiders. UNICEF, the U.N. Children's Fund, arrived in the region, which took the full brunt of the tsunami, to immunize children.
Governments across the world have promised $5.5 billion in aid, with individuals and corporations pledging at least $2 billion more.
Thailand and India say they can cope on their own but Indonesia and Sri Lanka are most in need of help.
The stricken nations owe about $272 billion to the 19 Paris Club creditors, and although all would not accept the freeze on repayment, billions of dollars would be freed up in the short-term for relief. But it could lead to higher debt servicing costs in the future.
"The Paris Club creditors don't want this suspension of payments to be subject to any conditions -- neither an agreement with the International Monetary Fund nor any comparable treatment on the part of private creditors," Jouyet of the Paris Club said.
French Finance Minister Herve Gaymard said he expected Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Seychelles to take up the offer.