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Wolfowitz: U.S. mission is to care

Deputy Defense Secretary shocked by tsunami devastation

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Paul Wolfowitz

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia (CNN) -- After getting a first-hand look Banda Aceh, Indonesia -- hit hardest by the December 26 earthquake and tsunami -- U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said the U.S. shares the goal of wrapping up its military relief mission as soon as possible.

Indonesia's vice president recently said that "foreign military and aid groups can leave" by March 26.

"We certainly hope that U.S. military can be handing this off to other people long before (the end of March) but I think it's right to think of it as goal and not a deadline," Wolfowitz said Saturday. "The real objective, the mission, is to take care of the people who survived this horrible disaster."

Speaking to reporters after taking a helicopter tour of Indonesia's Aceh province, worst hit by the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami it spawned, he said he was shocked at what he saw.

"I can't believe the scale of it, the devastation. And I only saw a small part," said Wolfowitz, who was ambassador to Indonesia in the late 1980s and remembered Aceh as verdant landscape when he visited it at that time.

The massive 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunamis are blamed for nearly 160,000 deaths, including more than 113,000 in Indonesia.

Several countries have sent military forces to help distribute emergency aid in Indonesia and other affected nations.

"For any country it is sensitive to have foreign troops on your territory. It would be sensitive in the United States, and I can tell you it is extremely sensitive in Indonesia," Wolfowitz said. "What is remarkable is that it has caused no problems to date."

Wolfowitz arrived in Indonesia after touring the devastation in Thailand. He will meet with Indonesian officials Sunday, then head to Sri Lanka before returning to Washington next week.

Meanwhile, the USS Abraham Lincoln Saturday remained a short distance from Sumatra's coast after it moved out to sea to conduct fixed-wing flight operations, according to the Pentagon.

Military officials disputed reports that the aircraft carrier moved position to accommodate demands by the Indonesian government.

"Ships of that size require a great deal of sea room, however, to do fixed-wing ops," said Rear Admiral Victor Guillory in a teleconference Friday from U.S. relief headquarters in Utapao, Thailand. "That is the reason why they moved away from the coast for a period of time. Again, a routine procedure."

There has been controversy over whether U.S. Marines were disarming on humanitarian missions in Indonesia. CNN's Jamie McIntyre reported seeing armed U.S. troops on Indonesian soil, noting that defense officials are trying to limit the number of armed forces in deference to the Indonesian government.

Indonesia has also reportedly suggested providing military escorts for relief workers outside the major cities in Aceh province.

"I think that's being evaluated by the different nongovernmental organizations to see how that would affect their operations," said Tom Frey from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). "My understanding is that there is some flexibility, but I think there's going to be further discussions (about) exactly what that means, maybe size of convoys and that sort of thing. "

Wolfowitz said the tsunami disaster has renewed a look at the U.S. relationship with Indonesia's military, which has suffered under a U.S ban on sales of military equipment to the Islamic nation.

"We've freed up some frozen money to pay for their C130s (cargo planes) so they can begin flying in relief supplies," he said.

The ban prevented Indonesia from acquiring the spare parts needed to get its American-made C-130 cargo planes back in operation.

CNN Senior Pentagon Correspondent Jamie McIntyre contributed to this report.

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