Indonesia denies U.S. pilots use of airspace; carrier leaves

ABOARD THE USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN — The aircraft carrier leading the U.S. military’s tsunami relief effort steamed out of Indonesian waters yesterday after the country declined to let the ship’s fighter pilots use its airspace for training missions — part of a broad effort by Indonesia to reassert control over its territory.

The USS Abraham Lincoln’s diversion, which was not expected to affect aid flights, came as the White House asked the Indonesian government to explain why it appears to be demanding that the U.S. military and other foreign troops providing disaster relief leave the country by the end of March.

“We’ve seen the reports. … We’ll seek further clarification from Indonesia about what this means,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. “We hope that the government of Indonesia and the military in Indonesia will continue the strong support they have provided to the international relief efforts so far.”

The Indonesian government said foreign troops would be out of the country by March 31. “A three-month period is enough, even sooner the better,” Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla said Tuesday.

U.S. Marines have scaled back plans to send hundreds of troops ashore to build roads and clear rubble. The two sides reached a compromise in which the Americans agreed not to set up a base camp on Indonesia or carry weapons.

Instead, the Marines — about 2,000 of whom were diverted to tsunami relief from duty in Iraq — will keep a “minimal footprint” in the country, with most returning to ships at night, said Col. Tom Greenwood, commander of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

The moves highlight sensitivities in Indonesia about foreign military forces operating freely in the midst of a decades-old separatist insurgency.

The Indonesian military has warned that areas of tsunami-battered Aceh province might not be safe for aid workers, underscoring its efforts to regain control of the long-troubled region on Sumatra island.

However, the leadership of a rebel movement fighting for independence in Aceh has called for cease-fire talks with the government, a statement today said.

Rebel prime minister Malik Mahmud said in the statement that his men were willing to sit down for discussions with Jakarta to ease fears over the safety of foreign humanitarian workers operating in Aceh.

Aceh is the scene of a decades-old conflict between separatists and government troops, though both sides say they won’t carry out attacks during the tsunami emergency.

The Indonesian government traditionally has barred foreigners from visiting Aceh, but relented after the tsunami struck, because there was no other option but to invite foreign troops to deliver aid and set up field hospitals.

Indonesian authorities now are moving to reassert control. Yesterday, they ordered aid workers to declare travel plans or face expulsion from Aceh, saying it was for their safety.

The statement from Indonesia’s relief chief also said that if groups head to regions considered dangerous, “their safety will be organized by the national security authority.” It was not known whether that meant aid organizations may get military escorts.

Indonesia — where the Dec. 26 disaster killed more than 106,000 people — is not the only affected country that is ambivalent about U.S. military aid.

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