JAKARTA, Indonesia – Mediators on Sunday persuaded the Indonesian government and Aceh rebels to meet for negotiations on a cease-fire, trying to forge peace out of the tsunami (search) tragedy. Indonesia raised its death toll from the disaster by as many as 7,600 people.
An American admiral dismissed fears that the U.S. military is ending its relief effort for tsunami victims in Indonesia (search) too soon as a U.N. agency delivered aid on its own for the first time Sunday — a sign that civilian groups are preparing to fill the gap when militaries pull out.
Far to the east of Aceh (search), the Indonesian island of Sulawesi was rocked by a powerful earthquake, causing panic and damaging homes and shops, although no injuries were immediately reported.
The epicenter of the 6.2-magnitude quake was over the central part of Sulawesi island, about 10 miles southwest of the city of Palu, said Suharjono, a seismologist in Jakarta. It struck just before dawn.
Several shops in the city and about 30 wooden houses on the outskirts were damaged, police said.
The massive earthquake and tsunami that battered south Asia on Dec. 26 devastated parts of Indonesia and Sri Lanka where insurgencies have simmered for decades. The influx of relief workers and journalists into the region since the disaster has drawn unprecedented international attention to those conflicts and intensified diplomatic efforts for peace.
Now, there are signs of progress on both fronts.
Finland's Crisis Management Initiative, headed by former President Martti Ahtisaari, confirmed Sunday that Indonesian government officials and rebel leaders would meet this week in Helsinki to discuss a formal cease-fire in tsunami-ravaged Aceh province, where separatists have been fighting for an independent homeland for nearly 30 years.
"There is a hope that the scale of the disaster and the movement for rebuilding Aceh will help lead to social and political reconciliation between Indonesia and [the rebels]," said Dewi Anwar Fortuna, a prominent analyst and former presidential adviser.
Despite an informal truce announced by both sides since the disaster, there have been isolated reports of fighting, raising concerns about the security of relief operations in Aceh on the island of Sumatra. On Sunday, the Indonesian military said it had killed 200 alleged rebels in the last four weeks.
Early Monday, a top Norwegian peace envoy held unscheduled talks with a Tamil Tiger rebel leader, spurring hopes of finalizing a pact agreement with Sri Lanka's government that would give the guerrillas greater control of tsunami aid in the Tamil majority north and east, officials said.
Vidar Helgesen, Norway's deputy foreign minister flew by military helicopter to the rebel-held northern town of Kilinochchi, for the unexpected meeting with S.P. Thamilselvan, the rebels' top political leader, officials involved in arranging the talks said on condition of anonymity.
If finalized, it would be the first time the government and the rebels will be directly working together since peace talks broke down more than two years ago.
The rebels have repeatedly accused the government of obstructing aid deliveries to northern and eastern parts of the island nation which are under their control. The government has denied the allegations, saying it was going out of its way to give the rebel zones their fair share of relief supplies.
Norway brokered a cease-fire between the parties in 2002 that halted a 20-year civil war that had killed nearly 65,000 people. At least 31,000 Sri Lankans were killed in the Dec. 26 tsunami, with some estimates ranging beyond 38,000. About 1 million were displaced.
Meanwhile, a senior U.S. military official involved in the relief operation in Aceh tried to reassure aid workers in the area who worry the U.S. decision last week to start scaling back and handing over operations to other nations and agencies was premature.
"The bottom line is: I don't share that same concern," Rear Adm. William Crowder, commander of the USS Abraham Lincoln, told The Associated Press in an interview. "We're reaching a point where there's going to be a transition to sustain relief and not an acute emergency gotta-have-it-now relief that we saw in the first couple of weeks."
The USS Abraham Lincoln's five-ship battle group arrived off Sumatra within four days of the tsunami, and about a dozen SH-60 Seahawk helicopters have been rushing food, water and medicine to people along the island's battered coast every day since then.
On Sunday, a 400-ton landing vessel carrying World Food Program aid was due to arrive in Sumatra's coastal city of Calang, the first time the U.N. agency has used its own ship to deliver aid in the disaster. Thousands of victims are at a makeshift camp among the ruins of the destroyed city.
Touring one of 50 sites where shelters are being built for 100,000 survivors, Indonesian Welfare Minister Alwi Shihab said it was "only logical" that the U.S., Singaporean and other foreign forces begin pulling out.
"The emergency stage is almost behind us, so the military will no longer give their contribution," he said. "Civilians are more effective."
Two Indonesian ministries tracking the death toll in the country increased their counts on Sunday — though they continued to vary greatly as they have for weeks.
The Health Ministry raised its estimate by 7,661 to 173,981. The Social Affairs Ministry increased its estimate by 4,749 to 114,978. The conflicting tallies stem from different ways of incorporating the number of missing.
Indonesia was the worst hit of 11 nations affected by the disaster. The increase brings the total death toll around the Indian Ocean to between 162,530 and 228,771.