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Indonesia rocked by earthquake as government, rebels prepare for cease-fire talks

Monday, January 24, 2005

Indonesia rocked by earthquake as government, rebels prepare for cease-fire talks

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) - Indonesia was rocked by a powerful earthquake Monday that caused panic and damaged dozens of homes, as the government and Aceh's separatist rebels prepared to suspend a decades-long civil war in the interest of helping rebuild the tsunami-shattered province.

The epicenter of the 6.2-magnitude quake _ far to the east of Aceh _ was determined to be under the central part of Sulawesi island, said Suharjono, a seismologist in Jakarta who goes by a single name. The pre-dawn quake did not spawn a tsunami.

Thousands of people ran to higher ground in the city of Palu, where police said about 30 wooden houses were damaged, and patients at the main Undata hospital fled the building.

"They were shouting 'water, water' because they feared waves,'' said Dr. Riri Lamadjido, adding that the hospital had received no injured patients as a result of the quake.

On Dec. 26, Indonesia's western Sumatra island was struck by a much more powerful 9.0-magnitude earthquake, triggering waves that killed anywhere from 162,000 to 228,000 people in 11 countries around the Indian Ocean.

A month after the disaster, people remained anxious and nervous even in areas not directly affected.

In an inland province west of Thailand's capital, thousands fled their homes early Monday after rumors spread that a new earthquake had opened cracks in four major hydroelectric dams that were about to break open and flood the region.

The governor of Kanchanaburi province went on the radio and the head of the government agency in charge of dams held a news conference to try to reassure people that the rumors were false and urge them to return home.

The number of relief camps in Indonesia's Aceh province has dropped by about 75 percent in the past week, a U.N. official said Monday.

The "dramatic decrease'' in the camps _ from 385 to less than 100 _ was good news because relief settlements can cause survivors to become too dependent on outside help, said Joel Boutroue, head of U.N. relief efforts in Aceh.

Most people were moving in with relatives, and a few were returning to their villages along the devastated west coast, he said.

To smooth the delivery of aid to hundreds of thousands of survivors, governments in the two worst-hit nations of Indonesia and Sri Lanka were trying on Monday to ease tensions with indigenous rebel movements that threatened to hold up supplies.

Indonesian officials agreed to meet with Aceh rebel leaders later this week in Finland to negotiate a cease-fire in the province, where separatists have been fighting for an independent homeland for nearly 30 years, according to Finland's Crisis Management Initiative, headed by former President Martti Ahtisaari.

"There is a hope that the scale of the disaster and the movement for rebuilding Aceh will help lead to social and political reconciliation between Indonesia and (the rebels),'' said Dewi Anwar Fortuna, a prominent analyst and a former Indonesian presidential adviser.

Despite an informal cease-fire announced by both sides since the disaster, there have been isolated reports of fighting, raising concerns about the security of relief operations in Aceh. On Sunday, the Indonesian military said it had killed 200 alleged rebels in the last four weeks.

In Sri Lanka, Norway's foreign minister met separately with the country's prime minister and a top guerrilla leader over the weekend to help resolve a dispute over aid distribution in the island nation, where the tsunami killed about 31,000 people and displaced another 1 million.

The Tamil Tigers have repeatedly accused the government of obstructing aid deliveries to rebel-controlled areas in Sri Lanka's north and east _ allegations the government denies.

At Norway's urging, the two sides agreed to discuss the creation of a joint body that would ensure relief is fairly disbursed. If they do agree to such cooperation, it would represent serious progress in a conflict that has lingered for two decades.

Meanwhile, a senior U.S. military official involved in the relief operation in Aceh tried to reassure aid workers in the area who worry the U.S. decision last week to start scaling back and handing over operations to other nations and agencies was premature.

"The bottom line is: I don't share that same concern,'' said Rear Adm. William Crowder, commander of the USS Abraham Lincoln. "We're reaching a point where there's going to be a transition to sustain relief and not an acute emergency gotta-have-it-now relief that we saw in the first couple of weeks.''

As American forces began pulling back, Japan was stepping in with about 1,000 troops dispatched to Aceh. The deployment is Tokyo's largest-ever overseas military relief effort.

"Until we start working, we don't know how long we will stay,'' Col. Tokashi Muramoto of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces said after arriving at Banda Aceh's military airport.

Indonesia, the worst-hit nations by the disaster, raised its death toll over the weekend, though two government ministries have conflicting figures of between 114,978 and 173,981.

The conflicting tallies stem from different ways of incorporating the number of missing people into the death tolls, officials say. The government is working on reconciling the figures.

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