- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 23, 2005

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Mediators yesterday persuaded the Indonesian government and Aceh rebels to meet for negotiations on a cease-fire, trying to forge peace out of the tsunami disaster. Indonesia raised its death toll from the catastrophe by 7,600.

An American admiral dismissed fears that the U.S. military is ending its relief effort for tsunami victims in Indonesia too soon as a United Nations agency yesterday delivered aid on its own for the first time — a sign that civilian groups are preparing to fill the gap when militaries pull out.

The massive earthquake-spawned tsunami that battered Asia on Dec. 26 devastated parts of Indonesia and Sri Lanka where insurgencies have simmered for decades. The influx of relief workers and journalists into the region since the disaster has drawn unprecedented international attention to those conflicts and intensified diplomatic efforts for peace.

Now, there are signs of progress on both fronts.

Finland’s Crisis Management Initiative, led by former President Martti Ahtisaari, said yesterday that Indonesian government officials and rebel leaders would meet this week in Helsinki to discuss a formal cease-fire in tsunami-ravaged Aceh province, where separatists have been fighting for an independent homeland for nearly 30 years.

“There is a hope that the scale of the disaster and the movement for rebuilding Aceh will help lead to social and political reconciliation between Indonesia and [the rebels],” said Dewi Anwar Fortuna, a prominent analyst and former adviser to the Indonesian president.

Despite an informal truce announced by both sides since the disaster, there have been isolated reports of fighting, raising concerns about the security of relief operations in Aceh. The Indonesian military said yesterday that it had killed 200 suspected rebels in the past four weeks.

In Sri Lanka, Norway’s foreign minister met with the Sri Lankan prime minister yesterday, a day after holding talks with the top guerrilla leader, to help resolve a dispute over aid distribution. The tsunami killed 31,000 people and displaced 1 million in the island nation.

The separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam repeatedly have accused the government of obstructing aid deliveries to rebel-controlled areas in the north and east. The government denies the charges.

At Norway’s urging, the two sides agreed Saturday to discuss creation of a joint body that would ensure relief is fairly disbursed. If they agree to such cooperation, it would be significant progress in a conflict that has lingered for two decades.

Meanwhile, a senior American military official involved in the relief operation in Aceh tried to reassure aid workers in the area who worry that the U.S. decision last week to start scaling back and handing over operations to other nations and agencies was premature.

“The bottom line is: I don’t share that same concern,” said Rear Adm. William Crowder, commander of the USS Abraham Lincoln. “We’re reaching a point where there’s going to be a transition to sustain relief and not an acute emergency got-to-have-it-now relief that we saw in the first couple of weeks.”

The Lincoln’s five-ship battle group arrived off Sumatra within four days of the tsunami, and about a dozen SH-60 Seahawk helicopters since have been rushing food, water and medicine to people along the island’s battered coast every day.

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