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Indonesia says it won't expel foreign aid troops

Defense minister denies March 26 deadline

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Paul Wolfowitz

JAKARTA, Indonesia (CNN) -- Indonesia's defense minister says his country has no intention of expelling foreign troops helping the country recover from the tsunami disaster but merely hopes to take over most of the relief effort by the end of March.

"I would like to emphasize that March 26 is not a deadline for involvement for military personnel in the relief effort," Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono said at a joint press conference with U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.

"It is a benchmark for the Indonesian government to improve and accelerate its relief efforts so that by March the 26th, the large part of the burden of the relief effort will be carried by the Indonesian government and the Indonesian authorities on the ground."

The magnitude 9 earthquake, which struck off the coast of Indonesia's Sumatra island on December 26, triggered tsunamis across the Indian Ocean. Nearly 160,000 people were killed, including more than 113,000 in Indonesia.

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

Indonesia's vice president recently said that "foreign military and aid groups can leave" by March 26. That statement was quickly downplayed by the U.S. government.

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the comment "was intended as an estimate about how long the military part of the operation might be necessary."

Wolfowitz said the United States wants to turn over the military mission to Indonesia as soon as possible, but he emphasized that the focus remains on bringing relief to Indonesia.

"We all need to keep an eye on what we're trying to accomplish here together which is to bring relief to the survivors, to help keep them alive and healthy, help them to recover from what is an unimaginable psychological blow and help the reconstruction of a province that has been just devastated physically and the reconstruction," Wolfowitz said Sunday.

"It's clear it's an even a bigger task than even I imagined before I saw it."

Wolfowitz met with Indonesian officials in Jakarta on Sunday after inspecting the devastation in Aceh province on the northern tip of Sumatra a day earlier. He arrived in Indonesia after visiting Thailand and heads to Sri Lanka on Monday before returning to Washington next week.

Other developments:

  • The USS Bonhomme Richard amphibious strike group will end its tsunami relief operation this week, and steam for Iraq, where its 2,200 Marines will serve as an offshore contingency force for Iraq's January 30 elections, U.S. military officials tell CNN. In its place, the USS Essex group, with Marines from the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit will move from the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean to take over relief efforts near Sri Lanka, officials say.
  • A U.S. military medical team has been dispatched to the northernmost tip of Sri Lanka to ferry in supplies and provide medical aid in an effort to prevent the outbreak of disease. Six doctors and 26 U.S. Navy medical professionals departed Colombo Sunday for Point Pedro, about 20 miles (32 km) northeast of Jaffna. About 6,000 people near Point Pedro were displaced by the tsunamis, blamed for 29,000 deaths in Sri Lanka.
  • CNN Senior Pentagon Correspondent Jamie McIntyre contributed to this report

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