U.S. Marines have scaled back their planned tsunami aid efforts after reaching a compromise with the Indonesian government and agreeing not to carry weapons or set up a base camp on Indonesian soil, an American spokesman said Wednesday.
The aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, which is leading the U.S. military's relief effort, steamed out of Indonesian waters Wednesday because the country declined to let the ship's fighter pilots use its airspace for training missions. Helicopters will still deliver aid to Sumatra's devastated coast, however.
Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla said foreign troops would be out of the country by the end of March.
"A three-month period is enough, even the sooner the better," Kalla said.
The moves underscore sensitivities in nationalistic Indonesia at having foreign military forces operating there, even in a humanitarian operation. They also come amid warnings from the Indonesian military that areas of tsunami-battered Aceh province may not be safe for aid workers.
The government ordered aid workers and journalists to declare travel plans or face expulsion from Aceh as authorities moved to reassert control of the rebellion-wracked area.
Wary of Indonesia's sensitivities, Marines scaled back plans to send hundreds of troops ashore to build roads and clear rubble. Col. Tom Greenwood, commander of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, said earlier this week they would instead keep only a "minimal footprint."
In a major compromise, the Marines agreed not to carry guns while on Indonesian soil and that the vast majority of troops would return to ships stationed off the coast after each day's operations. The bulk of the Marines' mission has become ferrying aid workers and transporting food from the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard.
Under U.S. Navy rules, pilots of carrier-based warplanes cannot go longer than 14 days without flying or their skills are considered to have degraded too far. Since the Abraham Lincoln has been stationed off Sumatra since Jan. 1, the carrier moved out of Indonesian waters so its pilots could conduct their training flights in international airspace.
The number of Americans unaccounted for in the tsunami disaster has dropped to 474, reports CBS News Reporter Charles Wolfson. Eighteen are confirmed dead and 17 are presumed dead.
In Sri Lanka Wednesday, police announced the arrest of a 60-year-old man picked up after authorities received a tip that he might have been involved in the alleged sale of tsunami orphans.
The fate of the children - ages 12 and 13 - said to have been sold is not clear. The suspect has been released on bail.
Large numbers of children were orphaned by the tsunami and the United Nations and international aid groups have indicated their concern that child traffickers could take advantage of the disaster and try to sell orphans into forced labor or the sex trade.
Security concerns threaten to hamper efforts to deliver aid to Aceh province on the northern tip of Sumatra island, where more than 100,000 people were killed and tens of thousands left homeless or in need. The United Nations has been running the relief effort, appealing to donors attending a conference in Geneva to honor the unprecedented $4 billion in pledges to help victims.
Separatists in the Aceh region have been fighting for an independent state for decades. Indonesia's military chief offered the rebels a cease-fire Tuesday, matching a unilateral one already declared by the insurgents.
The military has nevertheless warned that rebels could rob aid convoys and use refugee camps as hideouts but has yet to offer evidence to back its claims.
Asked if those who failed to register with the government before traveling outside the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, would be expelled, Welfare Minister Alwi Shihab said: "I think that is one possibility."
Australian Prime Minister John Howard described Indonesia's demand as "a good idea."
"It is very, very important that in the process of giving full effect to this magnificent international response, that we recognize the difficulties in Aceh, but that we don't overreact to them and we don't dramatize them," he said.
But Australian National University defense expert Clive Williams said the Indonesians wanted to keep close tabs on foreigners to conceal military corruption and not protect them from rebels.
"The big problem with dealing with (the military) in Aceh is that they're involved in a lot of corruption there and the reason I think they don't want people to go to some areas is because they're involved in human rights abuses in those areas," Williams said.
Before the tsunami, foreigners were banned from the area, and Wednesday's demand highlighted the unease with which Indonesia has faced the aid operation, replete with civilian aid workers and foreign soldiers.
U.N. agencies said they did not expect Jakarta's order to affect their operations because their security officers already work in close contact with Indonesia's military.
"It could change the situation of (non-governmental organizations) who are moving around like private persons," said Mals Nyberg, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commission for Refugees. "I guess that's what soldiers want to control — that people are moving in conflict areas just like tourists."
Nyberg said Indonesian bureaucracy had eased in recent days, allowing the organization to get permission faster to run helicopter flights to outlying regions.
Getting help to the neediest is already a logistical nightmare, with roads washed away or blocked by downed trees.
Kevin Kennedy, a senior official in the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, was upbeat on the progress. In Sri Lanka, "the overall relief effort ... has really gone over the hump," Kennedy told reporters Tuesday in New York. "They think they have a good grip on things. ... The food assistance, if that can be used as a barometer ... has been delivered to all the affected people in Sri Lanka."
But he said some villages along the hard-hit west coast of Sumatra had yet to be reached. He said the U.N.'s World Food Program was already delivering food assistance to 300,000 people on the island.