The Bush administration Thursday downplayed the notion of friction with Indonesia over the role the U.S. military is playing there in earthquake and tsunami relief. The State Department said Indonesia has set no deadline for the departure of foreign forces.
Officials here are contesting news reports that Indonesia has set a flat deadline for the departure of foreign forces involved in relief efforts. But they also say the United States has no intention of keeping the costly military operations going any longer than necessary.
Indonesian cabinet ministers earlier this week set March 26, three months from the day the disaster struck, as the date for that country's assumption of control of relief efforts from international humanitarian groups and foreign military forces.
Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla Wednesday said foreign troops could stay no longer than three months and that it would be better if they left sooner.
However, State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher says U.S. diplomats talked subsequently to both Mr. Kalla and Indonesian President Susilo Banbang Yudhoyono and gotten a different reading of the policy.
Mr. Boucher told reporters the three months is an "estimate" of how long the U.S. and other forces will be needed, and that Indonesia is not telling them to go home.
"The relief effort will go on for a long time," he said. "The Indonesian statement about three months, they tell us, was intended as an estimate of about how long the military part of the operation might be necessary. We have no desire to extend any military operations. We're looking to see how roads can be opened, civilian operations can be brought up to speed, and the delivery of aid supplies can be done through civilian operations. But for the moment, it appears that military helicopters are the best way to get food to people who need it."
Mr. Boucher said the Indonesian statements earlier this week may have been "over-interpreted" and that the two governments both recognize that U.S. and other foreign forces continue to provide an "essential capability."
The United States and at least nine other countries have dispatched their armed forces to the region to provide emergency aid.
Helicopters from the U.S. aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln have ferried food and water to remote towns along the west coast of Sumatra and U.S. Marines have been supporting relief operations in hard-hit towns in the northern Aceh province.
Indonesian leaders across the political spectrum have expressed gratitude for the foreign help. However, concern is being expressed by Muslim and secular political parties there about the prospect of meddling in Indonesian affairs, especially in Aceh where the Indonesian government has fought a civil war against separatist rebels.
The United States has welcomed a cease-fire declaration by the Aceh rebels to facilitate aid deliveries, and has also said it hopes the two sides will use it as an opportunity to start talking to each other again about a peaceful solution to the conflict.
U.S. officials have similar appeals concerning tsunami-ravaged Sri Lanka and the conflict there between the government and Tamil rebels.