JAKARTA, Indonesia, Jan. 12 -- A U.S. aircraft carrier steamed out of Indonesian territorial waters Wednesday and American commanders scaled back plans to base Marines on land in Indonesia after officials announced that foreign troops must leave restive Aceh province by the end of March.
Vice President Jusuf Kalla announced the troop withdrawal deadline a day after cabinet ministers set a March 26 deadline for assuming control of tsunami relief efforts from international humanitarian groups and foreign military forces.
An Indonesian man gives a thumbs up to the crew chief of a U.S. Navy helicopter that delivered relief supplies to the village of Tjalang on the western coast of Sumatra.
(Bernardo Fuller -- U.S. Navy via Reuters)
"Three months are enough. The sooner, the better," Kalla told the official Antara news agency. "In the future, there will be no need for the foreign military presence."
U.S. officials and international relief organizations said that the new Indonesian policies and travel restrictions have so far not affected their operations and that they continue to have good relations with the government.
Until late last year, Indonesia had limited the access of foreign groups and journalists to Aceh, prompting complaints from some foreign governments that Jakarta was seeking to cover up human rights abuses by the military as it waged an offensive against separatist rebels that began in May 2003. In the hours immediately after the earthquake and tsunami on Dec. 26, Indonesia dropped the restrictions, allowing a major influx of humanitarian aid.
Billions of dollars of international aid have been committed to tsunami relief for the 12 affected countries, where more than 153,000 people were killed, according to the latest official tally. Most of the 106,000 Indonesian deaths were in Aceh, the closest area to the center of the quake, on the northern tip of Sumatra island.
The United States and at least nine other countries have dispatched their armed forces to provide emergency assistance. Helicopters flying off the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln have ferried food and water to remote communities along the devastated west coast, where U.S. Marines have started supporting relief activities in the city of Meulaboh and the town of Calang.
The Lincoln moved out of Indonesian territorial waters Wednesday because the Jakarta government declined to allow its airspace to be used for regular training missions by U.S. fighter jets that are based on the vessel. U.S. military officials said this development had not interfered with relief missions by the carrier's helicopters because they could refuel aboard other U.S. Navy vessels in the area.
In Washington, U.S. officials said they had a good relationship with their Indonesian counterparts in the aid effort.
"The United States and Indonesia have worked very closely together to try to get relief to the people who need it," said State Department spokesman Richard A. Boucher. "We'll continue to follow up on these reports that there might be some restriction, but at this point there are not any restrictions on our military assistance, on U.S. aid workers or on our international partners."
But Indonesian sensitivity over the presence of foreign forces prompted the Marines to scale back plans to land hundreds of troops on Aceh's west coast to help rebuild roads, clear rubble and restore infrastructure.
After long discussions with the Indonesian government, the U.S. military called off plans to base the Marines on land. Instead, smaller numbers of Marines are going ashore by day to help with relief and returning to their vessels off the coast in the evening. The Marines' primary task is now ferrying humanitarian workers and food from the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard.
At the Pentagon, a senior military official said that there had been no official restrictions placed on the Lincoln and that Marines had been allowed to operate normally and carry weapons while in Indonesian territory. The Lincoln's movements, the official said, were coordinated to facilitate relief efforts. "We're there to help Indonesians, we're in Thailand to help the Thai, we're in Sri Lanka to help the people there," the senior official said. "How long they want us there is a sovereign decision. If they want us to go, we'll go."
Indonesian leaders across the political spectrum have expressed gratitude for the foreign help, but there has been a mounting chorus of concern from both secular and Muslim political parties in recent days about the prospect of meddling in Indonesian affairs.
"Indonesian nationalism contains a certain layer of xenophobia. We're always afraid people from outside are coming here to destroy us," said Salim Said, an Indonesian political and security analyst in Jakarta. He attributed such suspicions to Indonesia's long and difficult experience under Dutch colonial rule.
Government officials said Tuesday that foreigners in Aceh must register with the Indonesian military if they travel outside two of the province's largest cities. The Indonesian military chief, Gen. Endriartono Sutarto, told reporters that the measure was necessary to help protect foreigners from attack by separatist rebels fighting for an independent homeland in Aceh.
The United Nations said in a written statement Wednesday that the new registration regulations "fell under standard security procedures and could also be helpful for coordination efforts." U.N. officials added that none of the foreign relief workers attending a daily coordination meeting reported that movements had been restricted.
Laura Conrad, a spokeswoman for Save the Children in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, said the requirement would force her group to be more organized in planning its relief activities. But she said: "We operate in conflict areas all over the world, and it's perfectly normal to notify the authorities where we're going. It's fairly standard for us."
Under the requirement, foreigners could face expulsion from Indonesia if they fail to register with the government before traveling outside the cities. In a written statement, the Indonesian government said it would be "placed in a very difficult position if a foreigner who came to Aceh to assist in the aid effort was harmed through the acts of irresponsible parties."
Indonesian military officials have accused the Free Aceh Movement of plotting to attack humanitarian workers, but spokesmen for the rebel group have pledged that the insurgents will not harm foreigners.
The impact of the regulation will likely depend on how the Indonesian government chooses to enforce it. While Indonesian military officers said they might require that foreigners have army escorts for travel outside the two cities, some civilian officials have not insisted on this requirement. Relief officials from the United Nations and private agencies have said the independence of their efforts could be jeopardized if they are forced to travel with military escorts.
In another development, the Paris Club of 19 creditor nations said it intended to allow a debt repayment moratorium for tsunami-devastated countries.
While three of the debtor countries -- Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Seychelles -- want the relief, Thailand does not because it could hurt its credit rating, French Finance Minister Herve Gaymard said, according to the Associated Press.
Nakashima reported from Banda Aceh. Staff writers Josh White and Glenn Kessler in Washington contributed to this report.