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AMERICA'S AID EFFORT

In Indonesia, Wolfowitz says US eager to hand over work

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia -- Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz flew across the devastated Sumatran coast yesterday and expressed pride in the US aid operation, but said Washington wants to hand over relief work to Indonesia and other affected nations as soon as possible.

The Indonesians "have welcomed us in a way that might have been unimaginable in other circumstances," Wolfowitz said aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, anchored off Indonesia.

In the ongoing recovery work in Indonesia's Aceh Province, the UN Development Program started paying about 3,000 tsunami survivors the equivalent of $3 a day to help with the clean up -- an attempt to kick-start the region's crippled economy.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was distributing 10,000 five-person tents to survivors in the city, agency officials said, with another 10,000 expected soon.

Efforts to keep epidemics at bay intensified, with the UN accelerating a measles vaccination drive after 20 cases of the disease were reported across Aceh.

Tetanus has been detected in 67 people, said Doctors Without Borders. Because the disease has an incubation period of up to 60 days, that number is expected to increase. Tetanus has a mortality rate of up to 25 percent.

Aid workers were spraying tents and walls with insecticide to kill mosquitoes and prevent malaria in areas that were swamped by the killer waves.

More aid teams will head to the ravaged coastal city of Meulaboh, including doctors who will establish a mobile clinic, said Roberta Rossi, a spokeswoman for USAID.

The United States is keen to use its big aid and recovery effort, which has included many US ships and thousands of troops, to boost American standing in the Muslim world, where Indonesia is the most populous Islamic country. Jakarta, nevertheless, has expressed unease over the number of foreign troops and wants them out by the end of March.

Wolfowitz, who was US ambassador to Indonesia in the late 1980s, said Washington respects that concern and had no intention of interfering in Indonesia's domestic affairs. "We don't have a plan other than to try as quickly as we can to hand over responsibility to others, and especially to the Indonesian government as they're ready to take that on," he said.

Adding to Indonesian sensitivity, the bulk of the devastation on Sumatra hit Aceh Province, where separatist rebels have been fighting against the central government for years.

After touring the damage zone, Wolfowitz declined to comment on Jakarta's demands that the United States lift a longstanding ban on selling weapons to Indonesia's military. Earlier this week, Indonesian officials argued that the country could have better responded to the disaster if its forces were better equipped.

But human rights groups and congressional supporters of the ban say Jakarta is exploiting the disaster for political gain, and insist that the 23-year-old ban should remain until Indonesia addresses unresolved human rights violations. Wolfowitz said the Indonesian government had the opportunity to quell the Aceh separatists if the reconstruction effort in the province is a success and shows the "benefit of being part of Indonesia."

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