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Fighting Closes Tsunami Aid Route

The United Nations has banned its staff from traveling between Banda Aceh and Medan because of reported fighting between Indonesian military and separatist rebels in the tsunami-battered area, a U.N. spokesman said Monday.

Mans Nyberg, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said the ban would be effective from Monday night until Tuesday morning between the two cities. It takes about 12 hours to drive the 280-mile stretch of road.

"There is a ban on U.N. personnel traveling from Medan to Banda Aceh until morning," Nyberg said.

"This is strictly because of the fighting going on down there. There was reportedly a small battle between the army and GAM (rebels) somewhere along the road," Nyberg said.

The official said he didn't know when the reported battle happened.

Aceh was hardest-hit by the quake-spawned tsunami that killed more than 162,000 in 11 countries in Asia and Africa. More than 115,200 of the dead were in Aceh, the northernmost province on Sumatra island.

Bottlenecks that have slowed aid distribution at Banda Aceh's only airport were expected to be eased by the opening over the weekend of a second airport on Sabang Island, just off the northern tip of Sumatra.

"We can double our aid intake into the country," said a U.S. Navy spokesman, Lt. Cmdr. John Bernard. Military C-130 transports from several nations were scheduled to arrive in the coming days at Sabang's newly repaired airfield.

The World Food Program has "ramped up distribution very substantially" in the last few days, said spokesman Gerald Bourke, adding that the U.N. agency was distributing 300 tons of rice a day, with most people around the capital now equipped with one-month rations of rice, noodles and protein-enriched biscuits.

Bourke said that two large shipments totaling 9,000 tons of food supplies were expected to arrive soon and would be anchored off the west coast of Sumatra to serve as offshore warehouses.

Australian Defense Minister Robert Hill toured Aceh by helicopter on Monday and said the devastation astounded him.

"Not only do you see where the houses once were, but you can see the destroyed remnants of the houses. It is devastation that's hard to comprehend," he told reporters in the provincial capital of Banda Aceh.

There are about 900 to 1,000 Australian troops in the area — including doctors and engineers — cleaning up debris, running a hospital with New Zealand doctors and repairing roads.

Indonesian officials have expressed unease at the number of foreign troops in the country, though Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono said Sunday they wouldn't be asked to leave by March 26 as previously suggested.

"We'll stay as long as Indonesia wants us to say," Hill said. "We haven't set a timeline for ourselves. We believe this is a job for military forces."

Meanwhile, Japanese aid workers stopped to commemorate the 6,500 people killed when a massive earthquake ripped open the Japanese port city of Kobe 10 years ago.

"I said a quiet prayer for those victims. I think everybody here prayed for those victims," said Tatsuro Kai, a 53-year-old doctor with the Japanese International Cooperation Agency working in Banda Aceh.

Several days of heavy rain have left many refugee camps swamped with mud and complicated relief efforts, with many survivors scattering to seek drier ground.

In the town of Sigli, east of Banda Aceh, some 3,000 residents of three camps spent the afternoon searching for new spots to pitch their tents.

The U.S.-based agency Save the Children, which was conducting a child-registration drive in Sigli, was forced to delay its work until new sites were found for the refugee camps. The registration is part of an effort to count the number of orphans or children separated from their parents after the disaster.

The World Health Organization said Monday that there were 25 confirmed measles cases in Aceh — though they didn't constitute an outbreak because they didn't appear in clusters. The WHO's Dr. Sidik Utoro said it was not yet clear if the number of cases was an increase over the normal rate for Aceh, where measles was common before the disaster. He said none of the patients had died.

Maintaining a steady flow of relief supplies and preventing outbreaks of disease were key priorities, said the WHO's Ron Holden, who heads a 40-member health assessment team.

Holden said that U.N. teams were working to assess the state of survivors along the battered western coast of Sumatra, pushing as deep as 12 miles inland.

"We have to insure that those who survived continue to survive," Holden said, adding that malaria remained a threat as did dirty drinking water. "But, to date, we've had no disease outbreak."

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