Military aid deadline scrapped

BANDA ACEH: More bodies were pulled from the rubble in Indonesia yesterday, pushing the tsunami death toll up by almost 5,000 as aid workers continued to find terrified survivors and Jakarta retreated on a deadline for the withdrawal of foreign military missions. 

The casualty figure in Indonesia stood at 114,978, a number expected to continue rising as the full extent of the Dec 26 disaster was slowly being grasped three weeks after the waves struck. 

With relief teams fanning across the ravaged west coast of badly-hit Aceh province, where most of those newly-listed as dead were found, thousands of survivors were still cowering on hillsides too scared to return to the shores. 

But in a boost to the humanitarian effort, the Indonesian government said yesterday an earlier call for foreign military aid missions to leave within three months was not a final deadline and troops would be welcome to stay longer. 

US Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who toured Aceh a day earlier, also said Indonesia and America could capitalise on cooperation in the wake of the tragedy to rebuild military ties broken due to alleged rights abuses. 

Further American assistance was hinted by US congressman Jim Kolbe, a foreign aid committee chief, who said President George W. Bush's government was likely to ask congress to extend US$350mil (RM1.33bil) already pledged. 

“I expect another substantial request but I am not going to try to guess what the amount the administration will request,” Kolbe told reporters during his one-day visit to this provincial capital. 

In Meulaboh, one of the worst-hit towns, the UN's refugee agency said it was mounting an unprecedented aid mission to help uprooted people clinging to high ground. 

“They are camping in the hills now. They're too terrified to come down to the coast,” said Fernando del Mundo, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman in Meulaboh. 

SALVAGED ITEM: A sewing machine lying atop ruins as a woman surveys what used to be her house in Ule Lhee on the outskirtsof Banda Aceh yesterday. — AFPpic

The move to help more than 20,000 people crammed in makeshift camps is a first for the refugee agency normally mandated to help people fleeing violence or persecution. 

Del Mundo said emergency supplies of tents and food for children would be airlifted to people packed into camps set up by the Indonesian government. 

“The condition in the camps is so bad that it requires assistance to make it easier for the people there ... The government is trying to decongest these centres and they have requested us to help,” del Mundo said. 

He cited one camp 30km from Meulaboh where 140 people were packed into a dark green tarpaulin tent. 

Faced by the challenges of reaching people cut off by rugged mountains and demolished roads, aid workers have expressed concerns over a three month deadline for foreign military aid missions set by Indonesia leaders. 

But at a joint press conference in Jakarta with Wolfowitz, Indonesian Defence Minister Juwono Sudarsono offered reassurances, saying the three-month timetable was not an ultimatum, but a goal for Indonesia to take over. 

“It is a benchmark for the Indonesian government to improve and accelerate its relief efforts,” he said. – AFP  

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