BANDA ACEH, Indonesia – U.S. military commanders said Saturday they have nearly completed their emergency relief missions in the tsunami-battered areas of Thailand and Sri Lanka and could withdraw the bulk of American troops within two weeks. But the devastated western coast of Indonesia could need foreign military assistance for some time, they said.
Briefing Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who is on a whirlwind trip to Thailand, Indonesia and Sri Lanka this weekend, the commanders said they are dealing with “mind-boggling” destruction in Aceh province on the northwestern tip of Sumatra island and are still assessing the population’s need for food, water and medical care. Parts of a major highway have been washed away, preventing them from reaching isolated communities that could be in dire need of help, they said.
Marine Lt. Gen. Robert Blackman, who commands a multinational support force based in U-Tapao, Thailand, told Wolfowitz that the mission in Indonesia required “daily maintenance” and that a “fog of relief” was still being sorted out. In the briefing, Blackman said an assessment was under way of nearly 50 sites in Sumatra where the World Health Organization has reported that some survivors are just now streaming back down from the mountains into makeshift, spontaneous settlements near landing sites for helicopters bringing food and supplies.
“All of us feel an enormous sympathy for the people of Aceh and a desire to help,” Wolfowitz said before heading to Jakarta, where he is to meet with officials today. “The scale of this is so enormous, I don’t know that any country could do this on their own.”
The Indonesian government, however, has said it wants to take over sole responsibility for relief and recovery efforts by March 26, a target date that is three months after the tsunami hit.
Wolfowitz also said the U.S. military wants to help the local government handle the problem on its own.
U.S. ships have helped ferry 2.2 million pounds of food and supplies to Banda Aceh. Helicopters have flown nearly 900 missions from the ships in two weeks, landing in dozens of zones that are swarmed by residents when they arrive.