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    US Defense Official Vows Quick Exit From Tsunami Relief Work

    Ron Corben

    U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz says the United States will withdraw its troops from tsunami relief operations in Asia as "soon as possible". Mr. Wolfowitz made his first stop in Bangkok, on a regional tour to assess how the military is aiding countries hit by the December 26 earthquake and tsunami.

    During his stopover in Bangkok Saturday, U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz met with Thai Defense Minister General Samphan Boonyanant to assess overall relief efforts in Thailand and the Indian Ocean region following the December 26 disaster.

    The United States is mobilizing its largest military operation in Asia in more than 30 years, using the Thai Air Force Base Utapao as its staging ground. So far, more than three million tons of relief supplies have passed through Utapao.

    But Mr. Wolfowitz says a key aim is for the U.S. military to pass on relief responsibilities to other governments and organizations in the region as soon as possible.

    "Ultimately the key here is to make sure the people who are suffering, the people who need to recover have the assistance they need," he said.

    He praised Indonesia's decision this week to set March 31 as a deadline for foreign troops to exit the aid operation.

    "My sense of the comments that you heard from Indonesia wasn't that they're setting arbitrary deadlines," Mr. Wolfowitz said, "so much as they are setting goals and expressing their own desire to take on responsibility in their own countries as quickly as possible and we applaud that."

    The death toll from the disaster now exceeds more than 160,000 with millions of people homeless.

    Mr. Wolfowitz says on this tour he wants to look at how the United States can best aid the region's future recovery.

    "The principal focus of this trip is to look ahead and think about how we can make sure that the medium and longer term needs are met and met as much as possible with local resources, and with civilian resources and with non-governmental resources," he said.

    The United States has spent $92 million of the $350 million of tsunami relief aid promised by President Bush. Some 15,000 troops, 21 ships, 41 airplanes and 50 helicopters have been sent to assist in the relief work in the region.

     

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