Indonesia kills 120 rebels in devastated Aceh
Indonesia's military said it had killed 120 separatist rebels over the past two weeks in tsunami-devastated Aceh province, despite pledges by both sides to focus on a massive relief effort rather than fighting.
"Over the past two weeks we have been forced to kill 120 GAM (Free Aceh Movement) members and seized their weapons," army chief General Ryamizard Ryacudu said, claiming they had been stealing relief supplies.
GAM has declared its own ceasefire and both it and the Jakarta government have expressed interest in sitting down for peace talks after the disaster killed 166,760 people in Aceh and elsewhere in north Sumatra.
The United States called for a political answer to the decade-old struggle in Aceh, a conflict that continued even after the region took the full force of the December 26 earthquake and the waves it created.
Confirming some of the worst fears over the scale of the disaster, Indonesia's health ministry upped its death toll by almost 70,000 late Wednesday. The toll across the Indian Ocean is now close to 222,000.
The Indonesian figure, reached when thousands said to be missing were listed as dead, conflicted with a tally of 115,000 from the social affairs department.
However it appeared to be reaching the numbers that officials including the UN's chief humanitarian coordinator Jan Egeland, had predicted.
Egeland said in early January, when Indonesia's toll was around 90,000, that the figure would rise "exponentially" here after a more thorough assessment of the damage.
As efforts continued around the Indian Ocean basin to help the suffering, Egeland said cash pledged by donor countries was beginning to roll in.
Donor nations promised billions of dollars after the tsunamis, but the United Nations on January 6 appealed for 977 million of the sum to immediately meet needs of survivors.
"The donor response has never, ever been better or more generous or more immediate," Egeland told a conference on disaster reduction in Kobe, Japan.
The United States, which has led foreign military operations that have been the backbone of relief operations in Aceh, indicated it would begin winding down its relief operations "right now".
The commander of US forces in the Pacific Admiral Thomas B. Fargo told a news conference "there have been no deadlines or datelines established" but that two months was probably long enough for the main military aid effort.
"My observation here is that we are pretty much past the immediate relief phase and we're rapidly moving towards rehabilitation and reconstruction.
"We will start right now transferring functions to the appropriate host nation and international organisations," he said.
Thousands of foreign military personnel from countries including Malaysia, France, Singapore, India and Japan, equipped with warships and helicopters, have helped bring relief to isolated areas of Aceh's tsunami-hit coastline.
But their arrival has stirred some resentment in traditionally nationalist Indonesia, particularly in Aceh, where authorities have imposed restrictive security. They blame the separatist conflict.
Indonesia indicated Wednesday it may sit down for peace talks with Free Aceh Movement leaders before the end of January in what would be the first step towards reconciliation since a truce collapsed in May 2003.
The United States called late Wednesday for a political solution to the conflict, with Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz arguing that the country's powerful military should be "pushed to get out of the way" if they drag their heels.
Wolfowitz, fresh from a tour of Indonesia and other disaster-hit countries, suggested that military ties suspended in 1999 over a crisis in East Timor could slowly be restored as a reward for peace.
"We have a chance to give some meaning to that tragedy by moving to a better future, including particularly trying to move toward a political resolution of that problem in Aceh," Wolfowitz said in an interview.
In Japan, where experts are meeting in Kobe to discuss ways of limiting the effects of future natural disasters, the United Nations was on Thursday put in charge of offers to build a tsunami early warning system.
Salvano Briceno, head of the UN disaster reduction group, said a system to warn of giant waves in the Indian Ocean was still on track to be operating in 12 to 18 months.