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Tsunami Aid Spat Roils Peace Hopes

Norwegian diplomats were trying Saturday to get the Sri Lankan government and Tamil Tiger rebels to form a body to ensure tsunami aid is fairly distributed, aiming to resolve guerrillas' accusations the government is blocking supplies to their areas.

The aid dispute has undermined hopes that dealing with the disaster, which killed some 31,000 people in Sri Lanka, would bring the two sides closer together and back to the negotiating table for a lasting peace agreement.

Norwegian envoys — who helped mediate a cease-fire three years ago in the nation's two-decade civil war — met with Tamil rebels a day after talks with government officials to try to resolve the dispute.

The government denies the allegations of obstructing the flow of aid, saying it is giving the rebel zones their fair share.

At Norway's urgings, the two sides have begun discussing the creation of a joint committee to ensure food and other supplies are distributed fairly, a Tamil Tiger leader said.

After a meeting with Norwegian diplomats, chief Tamil Tiger negotiator Anton Balasingham said the body would be aimed at dispelling rebel concerns that aid was becoming entangled with "bureaucracy, corruption or political intrigues." He didn't give further details.

"Norway would like to see cooperation and partnership in the reconstruction effort," said Hilde Johnson, Norwegian minister for international development.

The death toll in 11 countries from the Dec. 26 tsunami ranges from 157,000 to 221,000 — with the large discrepancy blamed on conflicting death national tolls from different government agencies in two countries, Sri Lanka and Indonesia.

After officials in Sri Lanka failed to reconcile a discrepancy of 7,000 in death tolls released by two agencies, one agency asked President Chandrika Kumaratunga on Saturday to step in and resolve the matter.

In Indonesia, where one government ministry puts the number of dead at 110,229 and another at 166,320, authorities were working to get their count straight, according to Welfare Minister Alwi Shihab.

The huge gap stemmed from different ways of incorporating numbers of the missing into the death toll, he said, while stressing that the government will likely never determine the exact number of dead.

"The real number nobody knows — except God," he said.

Indonesia, fighting its reputation for widespread corruption, repeated promises made earlier this week that it will do all it can to ensure foreign aid reaches the victims. One step announced by Shihab was that governments could designate specific projects they wanted to fund.

"I hope that the trust can be built between the government and the donor countries," Shihab said in Banda Aceh, the capital of Indonesia's worst-hit province. "We want to demonstrate to the whole world that this government is different from the previous government."

Foreign governments and international agencies have pledged around $4 billion in aid to the region, and Indonesia is expected to get the largest chunk.

Some of that aid was arriving Saturday by U.S. Navy helicopter. Crews delivered boxes of food — high protein biscuits, rice, cooking oil and bottles of water — to villages along Indonesia's Sumatran coast, where people streamed out of woods to greet them.

In one village 50 miles south of the provincial capital of Banda Aceh, a SH-60 Seahawk helicopter was virtually mobbed when it touched down on a lush-green field — villagers pressed so close that U.S. servicemen had difficulty handing out the food.

"We're welcomed with open arms," said Cmdr. Jim McHugh, who's in charge of air operations on the USS Abraham Lincoln. "Our aim is to help the people of Indonesia. But if the side effect is also improving the image of the United States in the Muslim world, that's great."

Delegates at a U.N. conference in Japan, meanwhile, adopted a plan to reduce casualties and damage caused by natural calamities such as the Dec. 26 earthquake-triggered tsunami that slammed into Asian and African coastlines.

On the sidelines of the conference, wealthy nations pledged at least $8 million toward the estimated $30 million cost of an Indian Ocean tsunami early warning network, like the one long in place in the Pacific.

With U.N. coordination, they hope to deploy the alert system by mid-2006.

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