Indonesia Wants All Foreign Troops Out by March
U.S. Marines have scaled back plans to send hundreds of troops into Indonesia to build roads and clear debris from last month’s tsunami, Marine Corps officials said Wednesday, after Indonesian officials said they hoped to have all foreign troops off their soil by late March.
The agreement to cut back Marine operations coincides with efforts by Indonesian authorities to restrict the movements of aid workers in Aceh province, a sensitive area where the Indonesian military has been fighting separatists for decades and few foreigners have been allowed in recent years.
Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla told the state Antara news service that foreign troops should leave Aceh as soon as possible.
“Three months are enough. In fact, the sooner the better,” Kalla said. He added, however, that foreign civilians would be welcome to stay to help with “aid, hospitals and reconstruction.... [But] soldiers are not required.”
The news agency said President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Cabinet has set a March 26 deadline for the troops to leave.
The Indonesian army said Tuesday that it was issuing new guidelines requiring aid missions to be accompanied by an Indonesian military escort and to give 24 hours’ notice before traveling outside the principal cities of Banda Aceh and Meulaboh. Authorities warned that aid workers could be attacked by rebels, though the rebels have said they never would.
Tension with Indonesian authorities may have prompted commanders of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, the ship leading the U.S. military’s tsunami relief effort, to leave Indonesian waters Wednesday.
Navy officials said the ship moved into international waters to make it easier for its fighter pilots to fly training missions. Associated Press reported that Indonesia refused to allow the training flights in its airspace.
The Lincoln’s move did not interrupt the steady stream of helicopter flights delivering aid along the devastated coast of Sumatra island because the aircraft were able to refuel on other Navy ships closer to shore, Capt. Matthew Brown said.
Under 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 and they have to undergo extensive retraining.
The sudden uncertainty of the relief effort prompted the White House to ask Indonesia for an explanation of its statements.
“We’ve seen the reports.... We’ll seek further clarification from Indonesia about what that means,” White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said. “We hope that the government of Indonesia and the military in Indonesia will continue the strong support they have provided to the international relief efforts.”
In a compromise with Indonesian authorities, Marine Corps commanders agreed not to construct facilities for their troops on land. Almost all of the thousands of Marines engaged in the relief operations have been returning to their ships at night.
Despite the statements by commanders, Marines in Indonesia said today that they were unaware of any change of plans.
“We are doing the same thing today as yesterday,” Marine spokesman Capt. Joe Plenzler said in Medan. He said the Marines were operating a small emergency dental clinic in Meulaboh.
“We understand that the Indonesians are sensitive about ... foreign troops,” and there have never been more than 200 Marines on shore, he said.
The influx of foreign relief workers, reporters and troops has been a big change in Aceh.
“There has been too much too fast here,” said Humam Hamid, an academic and the founder of the Aceh Recovery Forum, a civic group trying to shape the rebuilding process. “For years, this was a very closed place. Suddenly you have U.S. Marines coming, Singaporeans, Australians. The foreign presence has just mushroomed.”
Indonesian officials have said aid workers and journalists can be expelled if they don’t follow the new rules. But some foreign officials here said there had been no immediate changes in the aid operations.
“There is a lot of confusion about what the new rules are. But for the time being, there are no changes on the ground,” said a Western diplomat working with many of the aid agencies.
Although the Indonesian military says threats of rebel attacks are behind the new restrictions, human rights groups previously accused the government of restricting access to Aceh to prevent information about military abuses from leaking out.
With a long, bitter history of colonialism, some Indonesians are sensitive about the appearance created by the foreign militaries. There is particular sensitivity about the U.S. because of the widespread opposition to the Iraq invasion and lingering memories of the Vietnam War.
“Many Indonesian people question whether the countries present in Aceh now will disturb our sovereignty. We want to ensure that will not happen,” Indonesia’s military commander, Gen. Endriartono Sutarto, said.
The Marines started delivering humanitarian aid this week with amphibious landing craft, coming ashore in Meulaboh in a high-profile operation that apparently provoked concerns because it resembled an invasion. The first beach landing, on Monday, brought 32 tons of water, rice and toilet paper.
In interviews this week aboard the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard, which is launching the landing craft, U.S. military officials stressed that they were taking care not to offend Indonesia. For instance, guns were inside the landing craft Monday, but no weapons were visible on the U.S. troops as they unloaded it.
Schrader reported from Washington and Demick from Banda Aceh.