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Indonesia's tsunami toll rises
Updated: 2005-01-24 16:51

The emergency relief phase is nearly over in Indonesia's tsunami-ravaged Aceh province and foreign militaries should scale back operations, the government said Sunday as it raised its death toll by 7,000.

But four weeks after giant waves killed as many as 234,000 people across the Indian Ocean region, workers are still pulling hundreds of bodies from the mud and rubble each day and aid organizations say they are struggling to reach isolated areas.

An Indonesian policeman and a volunteer worker carry the body of a tsunami victim past the Rahmatullah mosque which was damaged by the earthquake and tsunami in the village of Lhoknga, southwest of Banda Aceh on the Indonesian island of Sumatra January 23, 2005. [AP]

Indonesia's Health Ministry said Sunday 173,981 people died on Sumatra island, up from 166,320. Most of the deaths occurred in Aceh province, where Indonesia's chief social welfare minister, Alwi Shihab, said civilian relief workers will now be more useful than foreign troops.

"I think that is only logical (that they scale down), not only the Americans but the Singaporeans as well. The Singaporeans are bringing in more engineers and civilians and withdrawing military," he told reporters as he inspected preparations for a refugee relocation camp in the provincial capital, Banda Aceh.

The U.S. military and other foreign troops have been providing the backbone of aid distribution operations on Aceh's ravaged west coast using helicopters off two aircraft carriers.

But the presence of foreign troops, particularly the Americans, has been a sensitive issue for authorities in the world's most populous Muslim nation.

Indonesian forces have been battling separatist rebels for decades in the gas-rich province on the western side of the Strait of Malacca shipping lane. Before the disaster, Aceh had been closed to foreign aid workers and journalists.

The United Nations asked Indonesia not to attach a deadline to the presence of foreign troops after Vice President Jusuf Kalla said they should be gone in three months.

While Indonesia has toned down talk of a deadline, it has made clear it wants foreign troops to wind up operations soon.

"The emergency stage is almost behind us, so the military will no longer be as effective to give their contribution. Civilians are needed," Shihab said.

"We are opening up isolated areas through ground transportation, so we don't need more helicopters to fly."

U.N. officials say helicopters operated by U.S. and other militaries remain key to reaching isolated pockets of people.

Relief workers in Aceh said their work was far from over and they were preparing to take on more of the burden.

"We are feeding close to 400,000 people now. But that does not equate with mission accomplished," Patrick Webb, global chief of nutrition for the World Food Program (WFP), told Reuters.

In Helsinki, the office of former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari said he would mediate talks between the Indonesian government and the rebel Free Aceh Movement (GAM) next week.

Indonesia's Foreign Ministry said it could neither confirm nor deny the report. A spokesman for the rebel group's exiled leadership in Sweden, said he had no information on any contacts between the two sides.

In Sri Lanka, where more than 38,000 were killed, donors say they fear aid may not reach displaced Sri Lankans because government had created a risk of graft and mismanagement.

"The way the government is handling this could lead to large-scale corruption," J.C. Weliamuna, executive director of the Sri Lankan arm of anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International, said Sunday.


Some Indonesians said they fear becoming dependent on aid and worry about when international efforts wind down.

"I don't want to stay here forever, but I'm not sure how to get out," said Yunus, a tailor who lost his shop and house, and is now living in a refugee camp.

The WFP said it was positioning a floating warehouse off Indonesia's ravaged west coast.

A 3,000-tonship with its own landing craft, loading facilities and enough supplies of rice, noodles and biscuits to feed survivors for a month was due to arrive Monday.

"It will make a significant difference to food distribution on the west coast. Obviously, we are at the stage where we have to make our own arrangements, with the anticipated departure of the assisting militaries," WFP spokesman Gerald Bourke said.

Volunteers and soldiers in Aceh still pull more than 1,000 bodies daily from the mud and destroyed buildings. The corpses are usually dumped in mass graves.

With so many missing, conflicting figures put the toll of deaths in a dozen countries from Indonesia to Somalia at between 165,000 and 234,000.

Governments and private groups around the world have pledged more than $7 billion in relief funds.

On the weekend, top stars of rock, pop and classical music packed a Welsh stadium to raise money for tsunami victims at Britain's biggest charity concert in 20 years. Performers included Eric Clapton and the band Manic Street Preachers.

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