U.S. Military scales back tsunami relief

ABOARD THE USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN (AP) – The U.S. aircraft carrier that led a massive tsunami relief operation steamed away from the disaster zone Thursday after a mission that helped repair America’s bruised image in the world’s most heavily populated Muslim nation.

The USS Abraham Lincoln, with a crew of 5,300, formed the core of the largest foreign military deployment in the area and the most extensive U.S. operation in Southeast Asia since the Vietnam War. Helicopters from the ship flew hundreds of missions to deliver food, water and other aid along the devastated western coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

Its departure was the single biggest drawdown of the American relief effort.

U.S. officials said last month the emergency phase of the relief effort was ending and the military would gradually withdraw. About 5,000 of the 15,000 U.S. servicemen who had

The ship headed for Singapore and was expected back in its home port of Everett, Wash., in mid-March.

"I’m glad to have been out here to help," said Craig Stark, a sailor from Memphis, Tenn. "We did our time and did some good deeds for the people – but it is great to go home."

In Sumatra, survivors have welcomed the Americans warmly and greeted helicopter crews with broad smiles – an attitude mirrored by government officials Thursday in a nation where many strongly opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

"It is with deep appreciation that I say to all of you, ‘Thank you for a great job, well done,’" Indonesia’s Welfare Minister Alwi Shihab said at a shipboard ceremony. "I am pleased that the government of Indonesia no longer needs the full complement of forces that were originally deployed."

The long-term effect on U.S. political ties to Indonesia remains unclear, but the mission has certainly strengthened the hand of those who want to boost military relations.

The United States cut off ties with the Indonesian military in 1999 because of human rights concerns. The Bush administration, however, is keen to see the restrictions lifted, partly because of fears that al-Qaida may launch attacks from Indonesia, which has seen a string of deadly bombings in recent years.

U.S. Ambassador B. Lynn Pascoe praised the military cooperation.

"We look forward to having much better relations with the military in the weeks and months to come, and we will certainly be working on that with them," he told reporters.

Pascoe declined to say whether he would recommend that Congress lift the ban.

In a visit to Indonesia last month, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz – a former ambassador to the country – said closer contact with the U.S. military would strengthen the Indonesian military’s commitment to human rights and let it better respond to natural disasters.

Critics warned against turning a blind eye to accusations of widespread abuses by the Indonesian military. Congress has so far blocked moves to reopen ties, which were severed when Indonesian soldiers and militia proxies took part in bloody rampage that killed hundreds of people in East Timor following its vote for independence.

U.S. lawmakers maintain that the military has not improved its human rights record since then.

The departure of the Lincoln came as the death toll from the Dec. 26 disaster continued to rise. Indonesian workers cleaning up debris found 897 more bodies, the government said, raising the confirmed death toll in that country to at least 111,171. That put the overall death toll between 158,868 and 178,115. The number of missing ranges from 26,404 to 142,107 – with most presumed dead.

Underscoring the difficulties in accounting for those missing after the disaster, the list of missing Swedes was trimmed to 523 by Sweden’s National Police on Thursday. Three weeks ago, the figure was 1,900, but most were found either still in southern Asia or after returning home. Dozens of names were listed twice in the confusion.

The winding down of the American effort signaled the transition from relief operations to rehabilitation efforts. A health official said Thursday that precautions at the outset of the tsunami disaster in Indonesia prevented major outbreaks of infectious diseases.

"We have managed to prevent any major disease outbreak from affecting the tsunami-affected populations," David Nabarro, the top World Health Organization health crisis official, told reporters. "We must remain vigilant."

In another development, the tsunami survivor known as "Baby 81" and the Sri Lankan couple fighting a court battle to claim him were ordered to undergo DNA testing next Wednesday.

The judge also said he would consider ruling on the case much earlier than the April 20 date previously set, raising hopes of a quick resolution to the couple’s agonizing custody battle.