A US helicopter on a tsunami relief mission crashed yesterday in Indonesia, injuring all 10 servicemen aboard and briefly suspending operations, while strong aftershocks and security concerns provided more challenges for aid workers two weeks after the killer waves hit.
Millions of people are homeless and bodies were still being pulled from collapsed buildings after the Dec. 26 tsunami killed more than 150,000 people across 11 countries.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was assessing damage in the Maldives, a low-lying string of coral atolls in the Indian Ocean that lost 82 people. The UN is now coordinating humanitarian relief efforts in all the countries affected by the disaster and is taking that responsibility "very, very seriously," Annan said.
The US Seahawk helicopter crashed in a rice paddy about 500m from the airport in Banda Aceh, capital of Indonesia's hard-hit Aceh province and the hub of aid operations.
Captain Kendall Card, commander of the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier stationed off the Indonesian coast, said over the ship's loudspeakers that four of the servicemen had very minor injuries and six were hurt more seriously, the worst with a dislocated pelvis.
Lieutenant Commander John Daniels blamed the crash, which happened just after 7:30am, on a "possible mechanical failure."
US authorities said there was no indication the helicopter had been shot down.
The crash came amid heightened security concerns in several tsunami-hit areas with ethnic rebellions -- particularly in Aceh, where rebels have waged a separatist war in the province for nearly 30 years.
UN staff in Aceh are on high alert and armed guards patrol their compounds on fears of rebel attacks.
Indonesian military chief Endriartono Sutarto told reporters that he had heard reports of rebels stealing aid and even briefly kidnapping Indonesian aid workers.
Sutarto said the workers were rescued by Indonesian forces but gave no further details.
Indonesia's military warned aid workers on Sunday that rebels in Aceh were taking shelter in camps for survivors, but the government dismissed those claims yesterday. The government also said that rebels were not responsible for a shooting near the main UN compound on Sunday, contradicting earlier assertions by the country's military and police.
Welfare Minister Alwi Shihab said a troubled Indonesian soldier, not a rebel gunman, was responsible for the burst of gunfire. The soldier was in custody, Shihab said.
Aftershocks from the massive earthquake that spawned the killer waves continued to rattle residents in the hardest-hit countries. A 6.2 magnitude temblor sent people scrambling from their homes early Monday in Banda Aceh. No injuries or damage were reported.
In a rare happy story, a 22-year-old Indonesian, Ari Afrizal, was rescued at sea sometime late last week by the United Arab Emirates-registered Al Yamamah, said Sasheila Paramsothy, a spokeswoman for the shipping harbor Westport Malaysia.