BANDA ACEH, Indonesia -- Masked workers with mosquito-killing spray guns began moving through refugee camps yesterday in tsunami-battered Aceh Province, trying to prevent an outbreak of malaria. Indonesia, meanwhile, said it is pursuing a permanent truce with rebels in the area, the worst-hit by the disaster.
While the threat of cholera and dysentery is diminishing because clean water is reaching tsunami survivors in Indonesia, the danger of malaria and dengue fever epidemics is increasing, according to the leader of anti-malaria efforts in the region.
''Short-term, we're trying to prevent an epidemic," said Richard Allan, director of the Mentor Initiative, a public health group that fights malaria epidemics. ''And it may already be too late."
The death toll from the Dec. 26 earthquake-triggered tsunami in 11 countries has topped 157,000. Two-thirds of the deaths occurred in Aceh Province.
Allan warns that 100,000 more people could die of malaria around Aceh if quick action isn't taken. A successful spraying effort would drastically minimize that risk.
The pools of salt water created by the tsunami have been diluted by seasonal rains into a brackish water, creating the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes.
A fumigation operation started yesterday with a small team of sprayers planning to cover up to eight refugee camps around the provincial capital of Banda Aceh. The main spraying effort won't begin for at least two days because most of the insecticide has been held up by bureaucratic delays in Jakarta, where three planeloads of insecticide are waiting for clearance to fly to Banda Aceh, he said.
Poor health and stress brought on by the disaster have weakened the immune systems of the displaced people, leaving them abnormally susceptible to mosquito-borne illness, said Allan.
Vice President Jusuf Kalla of Indonesia, visiting Banda Aceh, said his government is working on a full truce with rebels who have been fighting off and on for an independent homeland in northern Sumatra for 30 years.
Exiled rebel leaders in Sweden called a unilateral cease-fire the day of the tsunami and have in recent days called for peace talks.
''We are not going for a cease-fire. We are making it permanently and we are working for that," said Kalla, who did not say whether negotiations were under way.
In Sweden, Malik Mahmud, a leader of the Free Aceh Movement, welcomed Jakarta's apparent move toward a negotiated solution to the long conflict. But when asked if they would drop their independence bid, he replied: ''The struggle is deep in our hearts."
Despite the talk about a cease-fire, the Indonesian government has insisted that foreign aid workers in Aceh be accompanied by army escorts -- a move that relief groups say will hinder their work.
In Sri Lanka, more than 25,000 people displaced by the Dec. 26 tsunami left relief camps in the past 24 hours to return to rebuild their villages, the United Nations' refugee agency said yesterday.
US helicopters flew into eastern Sri Lanka yesterday, ferrying some 30 tons of relief materials, including fruits and vegetables.
''We're concentrating on the eastern areas where many people were stranded after their roads and bridges were destroyed," said Wing Commander Senaka Dharmawardene of the Sri Lankan Air Force, who is in charge of coordinating aid in the eastern region. He said US forces ''have been very helpful."
The tsunami killed 31,000 people in Sri Lanka and rendered 800,000 people homeless. Wright said more than 425,000 still remain in refugee camps.
Indonesia is sensitive over foreign involvement in the humanitarian effort and reiterated yesterday that it wants foreign troops out of the country by late March. However, the United States said it has not been given any such deadline.
Foreign troops also have been flying helicopter aid missions to otherwise inaccessible areas and running field hospitals.
A team of medical specialists flown into Paya Seumantok, a village in Aceh, yesterday said many people had sustained wounds, lacerations, and compound fractures.
''Untreated, a lot of the wounds had become horribly infected," Joel Salinikio of US-based International Rescue Committee said.
In India, aid workers said government officials were hampering their travel to the Andaman and Nicobar islands, where 55,000 people are living in relief camps, and seizing supplies for their own use. One district official, who has since been recalled, took thousands of gallons of water intended for victims and used it to bathe, said Basudev Dass, joint secretary of the Indian Cross Society.