BANDA ACEH, Indonesia -- Awe-struck villagers watched as two Hovercraft landed on a beach yesterday in tsunami-devastated Aceh Province carrying Japanese troops in their largest overseas relief effort.
The Japanese troops will try to fill the gap left when US forces scale back their relief operations.
Indonesian authorities said they planned to move 400,000 refugees in Aceh from squalid camps to temporary homes before the end of February.
"It's critical to put all the internally displaced people in barracks, where we can serve them better rather than them being in tents," said Budi Atmaji, who is leading the government's relief effort.
He said the government also aims to remove all remaining corpses and complete its cleanup of the debris-filled streets of the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, by the end of next month.
Indonesia's president, meanwhile, offered autonomy to separatist rebels in Aceh Province if they agree to a cease-fire in peace talks scheduled to begin today. But a leader of the rebels rejected the autonomy offer, saying the separatists will settle for nothing less than independence.
The two Japanese military Hovercraft landed in the region hardest-hit by the Dec. 26 disaster that killed between 145,000 and 178,000 people and left tens of thousands of others missing across southern Asia.
The vessels, which float on cushions of air, brought a water purification plant and medical supplies.
"I've never seen anything like it," villager Muhamad Yunus, 53, said.
Japan, which has committed nearly 1,000 troops, joins such nations as France, Germany, Australia, and Malaysia that plan to keep providing relief and assistance even as the US military plans to pull back. Aid organizations said they were optimistic that the needs would be met.