- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 20, 2005

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — The U.S. military — the largest group aiding tsunami survivors — said yesterday that it will begin scaling back its relief operations.

Adm. Thomas Fargo, commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, said the U.S. military “will start right now transferring functions to the appropriate host nations and international organizations.”

About 15,000 U.S. troops have been deployed to tsunami-hit nations, where huge waves spawned by a massive earthquake swept away coastal settlements on Dec. 26, leaving at least a quarter million people dead or missing.

Most of the troops have been sent to worst-hit Sumatra island in Indonesia, particularly the province of Aceh at the island’s northern tip.

The timetable for ending the operation — Adm. Fargo suggested it would be wrapped up within 60 days — apparently would meet requests by Indonesian officials that foreign troops leave Aceh.

Adm. Fargo’s remarks came a day after Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla said he wanted foreign troops out of the country by March 26.

“Three months are enough. The sooner, the better. In the future, there will be no need for the foreign military presence,” the state news agency Antara quoted him as saying.

The government since has softened that demand.

The U.S. military aid effort, costing about $7 million each day, is in addition to the $350 million in assistance pledged by President Bush.

Meanwhile, a barrage of gunfire sent survivors diving for cover at a refugee camp in an Indonesian region long torn by a war between separatists and the government.

The shooting outside the Banda Aceh city underscored the fragile security situation in Aceh, where separatist guerrillas and government forces have been fighting for almost three decades.

Bursts of gunfire could be heard in the hills near the relief camp housing about 200 refugees on the mountain resort of Lambreh. Mothers cradling babies dived for cover when they heard the shooting. Some of the survivors screamed or whispered prayers for their safety.

Neither the rebels nor soldiers were visible from the camp during the shooting. No refugees were injured.

Aceh rebels and the Indonesian army have declared an informal cease-fire to help the humanitarian effort for the tens of thousands affected by the tsunami. Still, there have been sporadic reports of fighting.

“It’s a rebel stronghold. We held an operation because the rebels were making trouble,” said Maj. Benny Suharto, the local deputy commander.

Rebel spokesman Tengku Muharram said the military often shoots in the air to provoke his men to shoot back. But after the tsunami, the rebels have not launched attacks and have returned fire only in self-defense, he said.

The military killed at least 120 rebels in the province in the past two weeks, despite the cease-fire, Indonesia’s army chief of staff said yesterday.

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