BANDA ACEH, Indonesia, Jan. 15 -- U.S. military commanders in South Asia said Saturday that they had nearly completed emergency relief missions in the tsunami-battered areas of Thailand and Sri Lanka and could withdraw the bulk of American troops within two weeks. But the devastated western coast of Indonesia could need foreign military assistance for some time, they said.
The commanders, who briefed Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz on the relief effort, said they were dealing with overwhelming destruction in Aceh province, on the northwestern tip of Sumatra island, and were assessing the need for food, water and medical care. They have still been unable to reach isolated communities because parts of a major highway have been washed away.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, center, arrives in Banda Aceh to survey damage on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. He said the scale of the disaster was "so enormous" that no country could provide relief on its own.
(Kimimasa Mayama -- Reuters)
Marine Lt. Gen. Robert R. Blackman told Wolfowitz, who is on a whirlwind trip to Thailand, Indonesia and Sri Lanka this weekend, that the mission in Indonesia required "daily maintenance" and that a "fog of relief" was still being sorted out.
Blackman, who commands a multinational support force based in U Tapao, Thailand, said an assessment of nearly 50 sites in Sumatra was underway. The World Health Organization said survivors who had taken refuge in the mountains were beginning to reach makeshift settlements established near the sites where helicopters carrying food and supplies were landing.
"This assessment may be the most valuable thing we will have done," Blackman said. He added that the evaluation should help relief efforts move to the recovery phase, which will be handled largely by civilian and private organizations.
Wolfowitz met with government leaders in Bangkok early Saturday morning before visiting soldiers at the base in U Tapao and on the USS Abraham Lincoln, an aircraft carrier stationed about 10 miles off Banda Aceh, the capital of Aceh. Wolfowitz, who served as U.S. ambassador to Indonesia in the late 1980s, surveyed the damage by helicopter.
"All of us feel an enormous sympathy for the people of Aceh and a desire to help," Wolfowitz said before heading to Jakarta, where he is scheduled to meet with top officials Sunday. "The scale of this is so enormous, I don't know that any country could do this on their own."
The Indonesian government, however, has set a March 26 deadline for assuming control of tsunami relief efforts from international humanitarian groups and foreign military forces.
In recent years, American forces have had limited contact with Indonesia because of U.S. concerns that the military has violated human rights in places such as Aceh, site of a separatist rebellion.
The Indonesian military wants to acquire U.S. parts for its aging fleet of cargo planes -- now limited by a U.S. embargo -- and would like to participate again in training missions with American troops.
"This crisis offers both an opportunity and a challenge," Wolfowitz said, adding that the world has a stake in helping Indonesia's young democracy survive.
Wolfowitz said several times during the first leg of his trip that he was encouraged by the cooperation he had seen in the region. He said the relief effort could foster better relations and that it would be a "model" for other cooperative missions.
Wolfowitz also said that Indonesia was in charge of relief in Aceh and that the U.S. military wanted to help the local government handle the problem on its own.
"The principal focus of this trip is to look ahead and make sure the longer-term needs are met," Wolfowitz said in Bangkok. "Frankly, our job is to work ourselves out of a job. . . . We'd like to be out of this business as soon as we responsibly can."
American servicemen have helped ferry 2.2 million pounds of food and supplies from U.S. ships to Banda Aceh, flying nearly 900 missions in two weeks. Squadrons flying helicopters into dozens of zones are swarmed by residents when they arrive. The forces are also undertaking a major mapping effort to locate areas where bridges and roadway have been washed away. From the air, the stagnant water and flattened houses spread as far as the eye can see.
"There's a lot of work to be done," said Cmdr. Frank Michael, 42, of Dallas, Pa., who commands the HSL 47 Squadron on the Lincoln. "They need us here. It comes down to people helping people, and it's very fulfilling work."