GALLE, Sri Lanka, Jan. 17 -- On the final leg of a short trip through South Asia, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz visited U.S. Marines here Monday and witnessed firsthand how quickly Sri Lanka has been able to regain its footing after the tsunami.
He said the island nation had reached the point where it might no longer need U.S. military help. "It was a pleasant surprise in Sri Lanka that they're in the reconstruction phase already," Wolfowitz told reporters traveling with him aboard a C-17 military aircraft.
U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz talks with tsunami survivors in Galle in the southern part of Sri Lanka. Wolfowitz said the island might no longer need U.S. military help.
He said he was awed by the destruction in Indonesia, where relief efforts would take longer, but was encouraged by the way nations had come together throughout the region to help people in need. "It's a platform from which other things can be accomplished," he said.
After visiting Thailand, the tattered coast of Indonesia at Banda Aceh, then Sri Lanka, Wolfowitz said the scale of the tragedy was "really just unbelievable."
Referring to long-running conflicts in areas of Sri Lanka and Indonesia that were hit by the tsunami, Wolfowitz said at a news conference in a hotel here Monday, "When people face a disaster of this kind and see help coming from the government and help coming from outside, hopefully they realize the stakes for which they're fighting are trivial in comparison."
In Sri Lanka, the U.S. military -- represented by about 700 Marines in the west and the south -- has carefully avoided more than half of the island so as not to run into the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a guerrilla movement of the ethnic Tamil minority that controls large chunks of the north and east. Instead, forces from several other countries, chiefly nearby India, are working in areas controlled by the guerrillas.
The group, known as the Tamil Tigers, has sought an independent homeland since 1983 in a conflict that has claimed more than 60,000 lives. A cease-fire took effect in 2002. The group is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. government.
Across the region hit by the disaster, the U.S. military has been needed primarily for cargo helicopters that have been operating off sea-based ship formations, a resource that was largely unavailable from other nations contributing to the disaster relief effort. In Indonesia, many parts of Aceh province are unreachable by ground, and the helicopters are in some cases the only viable option for delivering supplies. Wolfowitz said U.S. helicopters had run 1,500 missions in the past two weeks, delivering more than 3 million pounds of relief supplies.
But Wolfowitz said this was "not an efficient way" to reach victims, so engineers are working to restore bridges and roads so trucks can get in to help. In addition, the United States has eased restrictions for dealing with the Indonesian military, opening the way for delivery of parts to refurbish the nation's fleet of C-130 cargo planes. On Monday morning, Wolfowitz watched U.S. soldiers alongside Indonesian technicians using the parts to fix the aircraft at a hangar in Jakarta.
Part of Wolfowitz's message over the weekend was the importance of helping other nations build militaries that can handle natural disasters on their own. He praised Thai and Sri Lankan officials for their efforts.
Thailand and Sri Lanka, which are both U.S. allies, train with U.S. forces, and Bangkok offered a coastal base in U Tapao for the regional tsunami response. Indonesia's military has been beset by problems.
Wolfowitz has been trying to open the door to a closer relationship, but there has been resistance in Congress because of alleged human rights abuses by the Indonesia military, especially in Aceh province, where it is fighting a separatist rebel movement.
On Monday in Sri Lanka, Wolfowitz visited a school complex in Galle. He spoke with Marines and local residents, watching as crews dug into the earth where a new building will go.
"We're making a real difference here," said Sgt. Seth Williams, 24, of Indianapolis, who with fellow Marines is doing engineer work to help rebuild this village. "There are a lot of people needing a lot of help. It feels good that the people are happy as can be that we're here."