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Last Updated: Sunday, 16 January, 2005, 11:50 GMT
Jakarta denies foreign troop curb
US soldiers make a chain to load relief goods into a Seahawk helicopter en route for a relief mission in the remote areas of the Aceh province at the military airport in Banda Aceh, 14 January 2005
The US military wants to pass on the relief effort to countries affected
Indonesia has denied saying that foreign troops involved in the tsunami relief operation must leave the country within three months of the disaster.

Defence Minister Juwono Sudarsono said 26 March was not a deadline for foreign military personnel, but a benchmark.

He said that by that date, Indonesian authorities aimed to be able to take over most of the relief effort.

The minister was speaking after talks on Sunday with visiting US Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.

The day before, Mr Wolfowitz said the US wanted to pull its military out of Asian tsunami relief operations as soon as possible and hand over the task to regional governments.

The US has sent more than 15,000 military personnel to the region, at a time when commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan are already placing a heavy burden on the country's armed forces.

More than 168,000 people were killed in the disaster throughout the Indian Ocean region. In Indonesia, the death toll climbed to almost 115,000 on Sunday, after nearly 5,000 more bodies were found along the west coast of Aceh province.

Thousands homeless

"We would like to emphasise that 26 March is not a deadline for involvement of foreign military personnel in the relief effort," Mr Sudarsono said.

Province on the north-western tip of Sumatra
Higher percentage of Muslims than other parts of Indonesia
Gam rebels have fought decades-long separatist campaign
Internationally-brokered peace deal brokered in Dec 02 but collapsed in May 03
Year-long military crackdown weakened Gam, but failed to capture senior members

"It is a benchmark for the Indonesian government to improve and accelerate its relief efforts, so that by 26 March, the large part of the burden of the relief effort will be carried by the Indonesian government and the Indonesian authorities on the ground."

Mr Sudarsono said he expected foreign troops to play a part in the operation for some time, albeit in a reduced role.

Hundreds of thousands of people in Indonesia are still homeless after the disaster, and the UN's refugee agency, the UNHCR, has begun airlifting supplies to remote parts of the country.

The agency is planning to bring in about 10,000 tents and other supplies, and to set up new sites to relieve the pressure on overcrowded camps.

The BBC's Tim Johnston in Jakarta says a US aircraft carrier off the coast of Sumatra island is providing much-needed helicopters to lift supplies into, and injured victims out of, parts of the disaster zone that are beyond the reach of more conventional transport.

Given the extent of the damage to roads, bridges and ports, tens of thousands of Acehnese victims are likely to need some sort of international assistance for a while yet, our correspondent says.

Indonesia's defence minister states his plan



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