Indonesia said yesterday there was no three-month deadline for foreign troops to pull out of tsunami-battered areas, while Japan began paving the way for the Japanese military's biggest-ever overseas relief mission.
Indonesia, which has been uneasy about the large presence of foreign troops, created a stir last week by saying forces should be out by March 26 -- three months after the quake-triggered tsunami devastated parts of Aceh province on northern Sumatra island.
But after a meeting with US Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Indonesian Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono said yesterday that Jakarta does not consider the date a deadline.
``We would like to emphasize that March 26 is not a deadline for involvement of foreign military personnel in the relief effort,'' Sudarsono said.
He said he wanted to clarify Indonesia's goal by saying the government aimed to accelerate relief efforts so that the country could shoulder a large part of the burden by March 26.
Earlier yesterday, Indonesia raised its death toll by about 5,000 people to 115,229. The 5,000 additional deaths came from the village of Calang, on Sumatra's northwest coast, pushed the overall death toll for the Dec. 26 tsunami disaster to more than 162,000 in Asia and Africa.
Also yesterday, a 20-member Japanese medical team arrived in Aceh to prepare for the Japanese military's biggest-ever overseas relief effort.
About 1,000 troops were expected to come to Aceh on Jan. 23 or 24 to help set up a hospital, deliver medical supplies and help the reconstruction effort, said Col. Takeshi Moriichi, commander of the medical corps for the Japanese Self-Defense Forces.
``It is the largest-ever'' overseas relief effort by the Japanese military, Moriichi said from Banda Aceh, the provincial capital.
Japan has also pledged US$500 million in aid, making it one of the top contributors to the global disaster relief effort. The forces -- from the army, navy and air force -- planned to stay about three months, Moriichi said.
Meanwhile, at a refugee camp about 25km west of Banda Aceh, the UN refugee agency was distributing 25 five-person tents -- the first of some 10,000 it plans to deliver to Aceh province -- replacing makeshift shelters built by thousands of homeless survivors.
The World Food Program's relief mission was quickly picking up momentum, providing food for close to 400,000 Indonesians, spokesman Gerry Bourke said.
``We have pretty significantly ramped up distributions,'' said Bourke, noting a shipment of 300 tons of rice left warehouses Saturday, a large increase from previous deliveries.
He said food shipments were also being increased along the northeast and western coasts of Sumatra Island, where previous deliveries were held up due to logistical bottlenecks and a shortage of trucks.
``Now we have come in big time,'' Bourke said. ``There are significant pockets of need and those are being served now.''