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US Not Concerned about Call for Foreign Forces to Leave Indonesia by March

The U.S. military says it is not concerned about a statement from the Indonesian vice president that all foreign forces should leave the country by late March. Officials also say the U.S. aircraft carrier involved in tsunami relief is continuing its work, although it has moved farther from the Indonesian coast.

A senior military spokesman, General David Rodriguez, says U.S. forces will continue to help the countries of the tsunami region as long as they are wanted.

"We're there to support the host nations, and do the relief efforts as best we can to help relieve the suffering of all the people in that region,” he said. “We're going to continue to do that until our capabilities are no longer needed, and we'll continue to coordinate with host nations, the U.N. and the relief organizations to support that effort."

General Rodriguez was responding to a statement by Indonesia's vice president, who said all foreign forces should leave the country by late March. Indonesia is the country hardest hit by the earthquake and tsunami, and the U.S. military has been among many foreign forces that have sent supplies, helicopters and technicians to help in the relief and recovery effort.

The U.S. State Department said earlier the Indonesian statement about three months was meant as an estimate of how long the military assistance might be necessary.

A senior general involved in the effort has said similar relief operations in the past have lasted about 60 days. He said this is a larger disaster, but there is also more help available. Late March would be 90 days after the earthquake and tsunami that killed more than 150,000 people and left uncounted others injured and homeless, most of them in Indonesia.

The Indonesian comment on the departure of foreign forces came as the government in Jakarta is putting restrictions on the movement of those forces, and of civilian relief workers. The government says relief workers must be accompanied by Indonesian soldiers if they travel outside major cities. The United Nations expressed concern about the new policy, but some aid groups said it is not unusual for host governments to monitor their activities.

The hardest hit part of Indonesia is Aceh province, where the Indonesian government has been fighting an insurgency for the last two years. Foreign reporters and relief workers were barred from the region, until the tsunami hit. There have been no clashes since the disaster, and the government has welcomed the rebel group's call for peace talks.

General Rodriguez also commented on reports that one of the key U.S. Navy ships involved in the relief effort has moved farther off the Indonesian coast. The general says the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln moved farther from land so that its combat aircraft pilots could resume their regular training flights. He says the carrier is still close enough to land for its helicopters to participate in relief efforts.

The general and other officials would not comment on reports that the Indonesian government denied permission for the combat training flights to be flown over its territory.