BANDA ACEH, Indonesia -- The US military, the largest group helping tsunami survivors, is starting to withdraw troops from the relief efforts to feed and house more than 1 million refugees, the US Pacific commander said yesterday.
Aid organizations responded to the announcement by Admiral Thomas Fargo by pledging to shoulder a greater share of the burden to aid tsunami survivors.
US warships and helicopters "played a crucial role . . . they're still playing that role," said Rob Holden, who heads a health assessment team from the United Nations, the US military, and other groups. "What we're trying to do . . . is civilianize the humanitarian operations because we're aware that we won't have military assets forever."
Fargo, speaking in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, said the US military "will start right now transferring functions to the appropriate host nations and international organizations."
He noted that the humanitarian missions in Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and other countries affected by the Dec. 26 tsunami have moved from the "immediate relief phase . . . toward rehabilitation and reconstruction."
The admiral suggested that the withdrawal of the 15,000 American troops would be complete within 60 days, apparently meeting requests by Indonesian officials that foreign troops leave Aceh Province on Sumatra island by the end of March.
Defense Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia said Fargo told him the United States would scale down its Aceh relief operations by the end of February.
At a news conference, Fargo said the US military would "respond to specific requests of host nations," adding that Washington "is committed to what clearly will be a long-term recovery effort."
About 1,000 Singaporean soldiers dispatched for relief efforts will begin pulling out today, a Singaporean military official said.
The withdrawal of foreign forces was announced as the official death toll continues to climb. Almost four weeks after the disaster, deaths reported by government agencies in the affected countries range from nearly 158,000 to more than 221,000.
The US Navy and Marines have delivered nearly 3.5 million pounds of aid supplies, about 150,000 pounds a day, since Jan. 1.
The UN World Food Program has distributed 5,600 tons of food to about 400,000 people in Aceh alone, said its Asia director, Tony Banbury. After visiting the obliterated coastal town of Meulaboh, Banbury said all tsunami survivors would be fed.
But worries over security in Aceh on the northern tip of Sumatra, where government forces and separatists rebels have fought for nearly three decades, threatened to complicate relief efforts.
Although the sides called a temporary cease-fire to facilitate the relief effort, automatic gunfire was heard in the hills near the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, prompting residents of one refugee camp to run for cover.
It was unclear who fired the shots, but a local military commander acknowledged that an operation was underway in the area to counter rebel activity. No one was hurt, and the shooting did not seem to target refugees.
The Indonesian military had no comment on the shooting. The state-run news agency quoted the army's chief of staff, Ryamizard Ryacudu, as saying the military had killed at least 120 rebels in the past two weeks.
At a UN conference in Kobe, Japan, delegates from participating nations discussed proposals to place a network of detection buoys in the Indian Ocean to warn coastal residents of future tsunamis. Specialists have said such a system could have saved thousands of lives Dec. 26.
A Pacific system already in place eventually could extend to the Mediterranean, Caribbean, and other seas, US officials say.