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Top Official in Aceh Says Foreign Relief Welcome

Indonesians Soften Stance on Outside Military Assistance

By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 14, 2005; Page A13

JAKARTA, Indonesia, Jan. 13 -- A top official in the tsunami-battered province of Aceh said Thursday that he saw no problem with foreign military forces remaining in Indonesia for as long as they are needed to help with relief and reconstruction efforts.

The comments by Azwar Abubakar, the province's vice governor and acting chief executive, reflected continuing confusion over Indonesia's attitude about receiving outside assistance. Two days ago, officials in the capital, Jakarta, said foreign forces must leave the province by the end of March.

Indonesian troops patrol in Banda Aceh. Indonesia is requiring foreign aid workers to register with the government before traveling outside the city. (Spencer Platt -- Getty Images)

"If they wanted to help our house and that takes, say, two years, then it's okay. It depends on the need," Abubakar told reporters.

The United States and at least nine other countries have dispatched members of their armed forces to support relief efforts on the western end of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, where 110,200 people are estimated to have died in the Dec. 26 tsunami. About 8,000 U.S. troops are in and around Indonesia; all but about 300 are based on ships off the coast, according to U.S. officials.

On Thursday, the Indonesian foreign minister, Noer Hassan Wirajuda, appeared to soften the remarks of other senior officials, including Vice President Jusuf Kalla, whose insistence that foreign forces depart within three months struck some diplomats and military officers as unnecessarily abrupt.

"You can rest assured that we welcome . . . even foreign troops. Their presence is based on our request," Wirajuda told reporters during a visit to the German capital, Berlin. But he said nothing about revising the three-month deadline.

U.S. Ambassador B. Lynn Pascoe, stressing that there has been no friction with Indonesia over the military deployment, said U.S. forces would leave as soon as the Jakarta government decided their work in Aceh was complete.

"We are going to be there as long as we are needed," he said at a news conference at the embassy. "We don't intend to be there a minute afterward."

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, headed for South Asia on Thursday, said: "For any country, it's sensitive to have foreign troops on your territory. It would be sensitive in the United States, and I can tell you that it is extremely sensitive in Indonesia. What's remarkable is that it has caused no problems to date."

In Aceh, international relief workers continued to seek clarification of a new Indonesian requirement that foreigners register with the government before traveling outside the area surrounding Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, and Meulaboh, the main west coast city.

The U.N. special coordinator for tsunami relief, Margareta Wahlstrom, met with Indonesian authorities in the province in part to determine how the requirement might affect relief operations, according to U.N. officials. The United Nations said in a statement issued later that foreign groups were required to register at Abubakar's office in Banda Aceh and that their requests would be processed by the regional police chief.

Indonesian officials have offered conflicting statements about whether foreign groups could be barred from certain areas of Aceh, the scene of a long separatist rebellion, or be required to travel with military escorts. Some U.N. and private aid organizations have balked at the escorts proposal, saying such an arrangement could jeopardize the independence of relief activities.

Dozens of relief workers have already registered with the government. U.N. and U.S. officials have reported that their operations have not been hampered.

Indonesian officials have said their intent is to protect foreigners from the separatists. Rebels of the Free Aceh Movement have pledged not to attack foreign relief workers and called on the government to settle the conflict through negotiations.

Staff writer Josh White in Washington contributed to this report.

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