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Indonesia: Aid Groups Must Have Army Escorts

Indonesia on Thursday ordered foreign aid workers in tsunami-devastated Aceh province (search) to have military escorts in areas facing violence by insurgents, even as the vice president welcomed a cease-fire offer by the rebels.

The total death toll from the disaster rose to more than 157,000.

Relief groups have reported having no 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 (search).

But 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 (search) and the stricken coastal town of Meulaboh (search) 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, meanwhile, planned a massive spraying campaign starting Friday in Indonesia's disaster zone to head off the threat of malaria (search), 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 — which include an order that aid workers declare their travel plans or face expulsion — 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 foreigner 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 on Thursday welcomed the cease-fire offer.

"Indonesia will also make efforts toward it," Jusuf Kalla (search) said at the vice presidential palace.

The U.S. ambassador to Indonesia on Thursday 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.

Kalla said Tuesday that Indonesia wants the foreign troops to leave the country by late March — sooner if possible. 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 (search), 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."

Health workers will walk house-to-house fumigating all the neighborhoods of Banda Aceh, officials said. Tents in refugee camps dotted around the city will also be sprayed.

Security fears have also restricted aid deliveries in Sri Lanka, where Tamil rebels have accused Indian and U.S. forces of being sent to spy on them.

The chief of UNICEF in Sri Lanka said Tamil Tiger rebels (search) had recruited three children living in tsunami refugee camps to be soldiers. It wasn't immediately clear how old the children were or if their parents survived the tsunami. Ted Chaiban said UNICEF was working for their release.

In India's remote Andaman islands (search), battered by the tsunami, Red Cross officials said relief supplies had disappeared from the docks in Port Blair, the territory's capital, and were later found to have been taken by government workers.

"They hijacked our relief material," said Basudev Dass, joint secretary of the Indian Cross Society (search). "They want to take all the relief material and distribute it. We are very clear that we will go and distribute it to the real beneficiaries."

But Federal Tribal Affairs Minister P.R. Kyndiah, who toured the region, insisted the relief work was going well and said there were no serious complaints.

In southern Thailand, where nearly 5,700 were killed — half of them foreigners — Thai survivors were still trickling into refugee camps from outlying island villages almost three weeks after the disaster.

Pantip Ruengnat, 17, sat in a tent with relatives, cradling her 6-month-old cousin, whose parents perished, two of more than 2,000 residents of Nam Khem village killed by the waves. About 4,000 Thais were in cramped conditions the camp at Bang Muanf, which lack basic supplies, including baby formula and tents.

"We just want a house, equipment to make a living and milk for the baby," said Pantip.

Rich creditor nations offered a moratorium on payments on billions of dollars owed by tsunami-hit nations. Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Seychelles expressed initial interest in the proposal by the 19-member Paris Club, but Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda later said accepting the offer could hurt the country's credit rating.

He said his country preferred grants, according to German Finance Minister Hans Eichel, who met with Wirajuda in Berlin.

The Asian Development Bank, meanwhile, said in a report that the tsunami could throw nearly 2 million people in Asia into poverty if sanitation and health concerns are not quickly addressed.