BANDA ACEH, Indonesia (AP) — Indonesia ordered foreign aid workers in the tsunami-devastated Aceh province to have military escorts in areas facing violence by insurgents, even as the vice president welcomed a cease-fire offer by the rebels yesterday. The total death toll from the disaster rose to more than 157,000.
Relief groups have not reported any 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.
Indonesian military spokesman Col. Ahmad Yani Basuki said in a telephone interview that 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.”
Health officials planned a massive spraying campaign starting today in Indonesia’s disaster zone to head off the threat of malaria, which one expert said could kill up to 100,000 people in the coming months if authorities don’t act quickly to kill mosquitoes.
Indonesia’s Social Affairs Ministry raised the country’s official death toll from the Dec. 26 disaster to 110,229, an increase of nearly 4,000. Sumatra island’s Aceh province was worst hit, with the number of people missing there at more than 12,000, with 703,518 homeless survivors.
Death tolls also went up in India — by 345, to 10,672 — and in Sri Lanka — by six, to 30,899. The overall toll across 11 nations stands at 157,642.
Indonesia’s restrictions highlight its sensitivity over foreign involvement in the humanitarian effort, especially that of troops from the United States, Australia, Singapore and Japan.
The security measures represent an effort to regain control of Aceh and the west coast of Sumatra island. Before the disaster, the military controlled Aceh with a tight grip, and foreign journalists and aid workers were barred. Widespread rights abuses were reported.
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.
Indonesia’s vice president welcomed the cease-fire offer. “Indonesia will also make efforts toward it,” Jusuf Kalla said at the vice presidential palace.
The U.S. ambassador to Indonesia urged Jakarta and rebels to negotiate peace. “Both sides should get together quickly, negotiate a settlement and get on with rebuilding Aceh,” ambassador B. Lynn Pascoe said yesterday.
Kalla said Tuesday that Indonesia wants the foreign troops to leave the country by late March. Survivors among the tens of thousands living in refugee camps welcomed the foreign troops, which have been flying helicopter aid missions to otherwise inaccessible areas and running field hospitals.
“If they leave, we will starve,” said Syarwan, 27, a tailor who survived the tsunami and is crowded with some 45 relatives under a tarp at a survivor camp in the provincial capital, Banda Aceh.
Richard Allan, director of the Mentor Initiative, an aid group leading the malaria campaign in Indonesia, said the tsunami had produced conditions ripe for huge swarms of mosquitoes in areas where survivors were extra vulnerable to malaria.
“They are stressed. They’ve got multiple infections already and their immune systems are weakened,” Allan said. “Any immunity they had is gone.”