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Indonesia: No Deadline for Foreign Troops Helping Tsunami Victims to Leave

Indonesia's defense minister says there is no hard deadline for foreign troops helping tsunami victims to leave the country. Juwono Sudarsono says Indonesia only suggested March 26 as a target date.

This past week, senior Indonesian officials said they would like all foreign troops out of the northern province of Aceh by March 26, sparking concern and allegations that the government was putting politics ahead of getting aid to tsunami victims.

Aceh has been the scene of a separatist conflict for some 30 years and has been under martial law and off limits to outsiders for years. That is until the Tsunami hit three weeks ago.

But Indonesia's Minister of Defense, Juwono Sudarsono, Sunday addressed the issue, saying Jakarta has no intention of asking foreign troops to leave prematurely.

"We would like to emphasize that March 26 is not a deadline for involvement of foreign military personnel in the relief effort. It is a benchmark for the Indonesian government to improve and accelerate its relief efforts so that by March 26 the large part of the burden of the relief effort will be carried by the Indonesian government," he said.

He says he expects foreign troops to play a part in the operation for some time, albeit in a reduced role.

Mr. Sudarsono made the remarks Sunday in Jakarta, shortly after meeting U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz, who is on a tour through the affected region.

On Saturday, Mr. Wolfowitz visited the Thai Air Force Base (Utapao), where the United States is coordinating tsunami relief operations, its largest military mobilization in Asia on more than 30 years.

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

Here in Indonesia, the country hardest hit by the disaster, the American aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, is stationed off the coast of Sumatra island. It is providing much needed helicopters to lift supplies into, and injured victims out of, parts of the disaster zone that are beyond the reach of more conventional transport.

Mr. Wolfowitz praised the sailors and airmen for their role in the rescue efforts, saying they had been expecting to go home when the disaster hit, but had sailed for Aceh without complaint to lend assistance to the victims of the catastrophe.

Given the extent of the damage to roads, bridges and ports, tens of thousands of Acehnese victims are likely to need the source of help being provided by the men and women on the Abraham Lincoln for a while yet.