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Indonesian Rules Chafe Aid Workers

Relief organizations said Thursday that Indonesia's demand that foreign aid workers take army escorts to tsunami-stricken Aceh province would create bottlenecks in aid delivery and blur the lines between the military and humanitarian efforts.

Rich creditor nations, meanwhile, offered to halt repayments on billions of dollars owed by tsunami-hit nations. Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Seychelles expressed initial interest in the Paris Club's proposal, but Indonesia's foreign minister voiced concern Thursday that accepting the offer might hurt the country's credit rating and said that it preferred grants instead.

Relief groups reported having no security problems in Aceh, where rebels have fought a low-level separatist war against government troops for three decades, and some worried that the new restrictions could harm their reputation for independence.

"We discourage such actions because it blurs the distinction between humanitarian and military efforts here," said Eileen Burke of Save the Children.

Rebel leaders reaffirmed their commitment to a cease-fire they declared hours after the Dec. 26 earthquake that sent killer waves fanning out across the Indian Ocean, killing more than 157,000 people in 11 nations. Indonesia's official death toll rose by almost 4,000 people Thursday to 110,229.

Indonesia's vice president on Thursday welcomed the cease-fire offer. "Indonesia will also make efforts toward it," Jusuf Kalla said at the vice presidential palace.

Indonesia's moves — which include an order that aid workers declare their travel plans or face expulsion — highlight its sensitivities over foreign involvement in the humanitarian effort, especially that of foreign troops from the United States, Australia, Singapore, Japan and other countries.

The security measures represent an effort by the government to regain control of Aceh and the disaster zone along Sumatra island's western coast, where more than 106,000 people were killed and entire towns and local government infrastructure wiped out.

Before the disaster, the military controlled Aceh with a tight grip and foreign journalists and aid workers were barred. Widespread rights abuses were reported.

The Indonesian government says it wants the foreign troops to leave the country by late March.

Security fears have also restricted aid deliveries in Sri Lanka, where Tamil rebels have accused Indian and U.S. forces of being sent to spy on them.

An American missionary group claims it has brought 300 "tsunami orphans" from Muslim Banda Aceh to Jakarta, where they will be raised in Christian homes, the Washington Post reports.

The Indonesian government denied knowledge of the claim and said it would be a serious violation.

The group WorldHelp said on its Web site earlier this week, "Normally, Banda Aceh is closed to foreigners and closed to the gospel. But, because of this catastrophe, our partners there are earning the right to be heard and providing entrance for the gospel."

That text has been taken down, the Post reports.

In southern Thailand, where nearly 5,700 were killed — half of them foreigners — Thai survivors were still trickling into refugee camps from outlying island villages almost three weeks after the disaster.

Pantip Ruengnat, 17, sat in a tent with relatives, cradling her 6-month-old cousin whose parents perished, two of more than 2,000 residents of Nam Khem village killed by the waves.

About 4,000 Thais were in cramped conditions the camp at Bang Muanf, which lack basic supplies, including baby formula and tents.

"We just want a house, equipment to make a living and milk for the baby," said Pantip.

In India's remote Andaman islands, battered by the tsunami, Red Cross officials said relief supplies had disappeared from the docks in Port Blair, the territory's capital, and were later found to have been taken by government workers.

"They hijacked our relief material," said Basudev Dass, joint secretary of the Indian Cross Society. "They want to take all the relief material and distribute it. We are very clear that we will go and distribute it to the real beneficiaries."

But Federal Tribal Affairs Minister P.R.Kyndiah, who toured the region this week, insisted the relief work was going well and said there were no serious complaints.

Indonesian military spokesman Col. Ahmad Yani Basuki said the army considers only the areas around the provincial capital Banda Aceh and the stricken coastal town of Meulaboh safe for foreigners.

"Other areas aside from that are potential trouble spots," he said. Anyone going to the troubled zones must take military escorts. But Basuki warned: "We don't have enough personnel to secure everyone."

Hoping to help nations hit by the tsunami in their recovery efforts, the 19-member Paris Club offered to let nine countries halt repayments on debt.

Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Seychelles expressed an interest in the offer, but on Thursday Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda said the country preferred grants over a debt moratorium, which could damage the nation's credit rating, according to German Finance Minister Hans Eichel, who met with Wirajuda in Berlin.

"They want grants," Eichel told reporters. "This is in principle their favorite position ... Indonesian creditworthiness in capital markets shouldn't be damaged under any circumstances."

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