- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 9, 2005

UTAPAO, Thailand — International relief workers, the U.S. military included, face a delicate task in coming weeks of ensuring their aid efforts do not spawn new violence in portions of the tsunami area already rife with political and religious unrest for years before the disaster.

While concerns are highest in Sri Lanka and in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where unrelated separatist movements have raged in recent decades, military officials say any place large refugee camps are set up can become problematic.

“Restless refugee-camp males are the prime breeding ground of some of these insurgencies,” said one U.S. military civil-affairs officer sent to the region this week.

Meanwhile, with the emergency-response phase now at full tilt, officials from several nations are scrambling to orchestrate their aid in a fashion that avoids waste, duplication and chaos. So many countries are sending cargo flights into disaster spots with limited runways that air-traffic jams and delays have resulted.

Three U.S. C-130 cargo planes left Utapao in northern Thailand yesterday loaded with rice, water and humanitarian meal packs. But they ended up stopping and sitting idle on a runway in Singapore before ever reaching their destination in Banda Aceh, the capital of Indonesia’s Aceh province, which was hit hardest by the tsunami. An estimated 30,000 people were killed in Banda Aceh in the Dec. 26 catastrophe.

The planes were on the ground in Singapore for about five hours before being forced to return to Utapao without dropping their aid because the makeshift runway in Banda Aceh was overcrowded with relief planes from other countries, military officials said. The runway can accommodate only a few C-130 cargo planes at a time.

As of late yesterday, the Air Force had delivered 3.9 million pounds of food, supplies and equipment to disaster-stricken areas, military officials said.

In addition to the hurdle of safely coordinating drop-off runs, there have been other unexpected bumps, such as when the runway shut down for hours one day last week when a 737 slammed into a buffalo wandering across it.

Air Force Gen. Victor E. Renuart Jr. said one of the strengths of the military is bringing “a certain amount of order” to the current chaotic circumstances in South Asia.

In the years before the tsunami hit, insurrection in Aceh was defined by separatists seeking independence from Indonesia’s central government in Jakarta. Thousands died in violence during the 1990s, and there have been reports of friction between the Acehnese and Indonesian troops in recent days.

On the other side of the Indian Ocean in Sri Lanka, officials also are concerned about separatist violence disrupting relief efforts. There were conflicting reports this past week about whether the Tamil Tiger rebels, who control much of the ethnic-Tamil section of Sri Lanka and have sought independence from the government, intend to work peacefully with aid and government groups on tsunami relief.

Capt. Arnold Schnobrich, a team leader with the 96th Civil Affairs Battalion sent from Fort Bragg, N.C., to assist in the long-term relief and reconstruction, said, “The tsunami changes the whole political landscape.”

U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, have stressed that one motivation behind the American military’s relief efforts has been preventing the sort of “radicalism” that breeds terrorism from taking root by distributing aid materials broadly and quickly.

Indonesia is the world’s most-populous Muslim country, with Aceh considered the most devout area. During his visit to Aceh and other coastal portions of the Indian Ocean, Mr. Powell said humanitarian aid dries up “pools of dissatisfaction that may give rise to terrorist activity.”

Although international promises of billions of dollars in aid have poured in from around the world, the mission is still in its formative stages, and Capt. Schnobrich said victims could be expected “to get restless after a while.”

“They’re going to think that they’re not getting taken care of or their needs are not getting met,” he said, adding that once the bodies and debris have been cleared, migrations of poor victims in hard-hit areas could be expected. “Food aid is power,” he said, noting that rebels generally “are seeking to seize power.”

For most of the military forces deployed to the region, the relief mission so far has been something of a relief in itself.

Senior Airman Robert Wyman, 20, who spent three days scrambling across the world with his C-17 cargo jet crew to get aid supplies into Thailand, said he had a good feeling about the mission.

“It’s awesome. It’s the first time I’m going to do something other than combat,” said the airman from Woodbridge, Va. “We’re going to help people in dire need.”

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