Wolfowitz: U.S. Eager to Hand Over Tsunami Mission

The United States is eager to end its military tsunami mission as soon as other nations are ready to take over, the U.S. deputy secretary of defense said Saturday. The United Nations (search) began paying survivors in Indonesia about $3 a day to clear rubble.

In Sri Lanka, the government has refused to allow the U.N. World Food Program's director to tour rebel-held northern areas of the island nation devastated by last month's tsunami, WFP officials said Saturday. The Rome-based agency is feeding as many as 750,000 people in Sri Lanka, a spokeswoman said in Colombo.

But a government spokesman denied that the administration was blocking the visit of James T. Morris, who is on a two-day visit to Sri Lanka.

"This is not true," said Harim Peiris, the spokesman for President Chandrika Kumaratunga (search).

Sri Lanka has suffered 31,000 deaths in the tsunami, second-most after Indonesia.

Separately, Indonesia has expressed unease with the number of foreign troops on its territory and wants them out by the end of March.

"As soon as our military folks can pass these responsibilities on to other folks ... and make sure the job gets done, we will be happy," said Paul Wolfowitz (search), who was visiting Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

He also said he hoped the U.S. military's role in the relief mission will be finished well before the end of March.

"I would hope that we would not be needed (in the region) as a military long before March," he said during the flight to Asia, according to a transcript of his remarks released at the Pentagon.

The U.S. military has 24 Navy ships, one Coast Guard vessel and about 15,000 military personnel involved in the relief effort in southern Asia. The effort includes 2,000 Marines who are ferrying aid workers and transporting food to victims in Indonesia, the hardest-hit country, where more than 110,000 people died.

During a brief trip to the USS Abraham Lincoln, Wolfowitz said helping Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim nation, recover from the tsunami disaster was important as the United States battled the world's Islamic extremists.

Wolfowitz told helicopter pilots who have flown hundreds of flights to deliver aid to towns along Sumatra island's tsunami-battered western coast that they were not only "angels of mercy" but also instruments of foreign policy.

"By getting here when they did, they must have saved thousands of lives, maybe tens of thousands of lives, and the people there are healthier as a result," Wolfowitz said. "It is extremely important to our country at a time when Muslim extremism has become (a problem) in the world."

Hundreds of troops from Australia, Singapore, Germany and other nations are also helping the relief effort, along with U.N. agencies and scores of nongovernment aid groups.

Later Saturday, Wolfowitz flew to Indonesia's Aceh province, where a U.S. military helicopter took him on a tour of the tsunami-ravaged coastal areas.

A huge Dec. 26 earthquake under the Indian Ocean and the tsunami it spawned killed more than 157,000 people across 11 countries, triggering an unprecedented global response.

In Aceh, the U.N. Development Program began paying thousands of tsunami survivors about $3 a day to clear rubble and debris.

"They are trying to hire local people to do this as part of stimulating the economy and getting some sort of livelihood back" for survivors, spokesman William Bergman said.

The U.N. refugee organization, meanwhile, distributed 10,000 five-person tents to survivors in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, said spokesman Mans Nyberg. Another 10,000 tents were on their way. The UNHCR and Indonesian government eventually want to house survivors in barracks-style shelters.

Morris, the WFP chief, planned to travel Sunday to Killinochchi, which is controlled by Tamil Tiger rebels, but was told it would not be possible, an agency official said.

Morris earlier traveled to the hard-hit southern coastal town of Galle and was scheduled to meet the ambassadors to the United States and Japan to discuss food aid.

The WFP is leading a mammoth effort to feed up to 2 million survivors a day for six months in the countries devastated by the natural disaster.

A leader of the Tamil rebel movement said the government lost a chance to revive peace talks despite hopes that tsunami relief work would bring the two sides together.

S.P. Thamilselvan, head of the political wing of the ethnic Tamil rebels who seek an independent state, said the Sinhalese-dominated government had given minimal assistance to rebel-held areas, instead channeling most international assistance to areas under its control.

"It has dashed hopes of reconciliation," Thamilselvan told The Associated Press in an interview at his headquarters in Killinochchi.

Norway brokered a cease-fire in February 2002, but talks aimed at ending the 20-year conflict broke down more than a year ago.

The government has denied charges it is preventing aid from reaching rebel areas in the north and east of the island nation. U.N. and other international assistance, including dry rations, tarpaulins and generators, are reaching those areas, where years of war have shattered the infrastructure and stalled economic development.

Efforts to keep epidemics at bay intensified, with the United Nations speeding up its measles vaccination drive after 20 cases of the disease were reported across Aceh.

Tetanus also has been detected in 67 people, said Medecins Sans Frontiers, or Doctors Without Borders, and because the disease has an incubation period of up to 60 days, that number is expected to jump soon. Tetanus has a high mortality rate — up to 25 percent.

Aid workers were spraying tents and walls with insecticide to prevent malaria in areas swamped by the killer waves. Others were learning how to use sharp lancets to draw blood for tests of the disease.