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Help, then get out, Indonesia says

Indonesia announced that U.S. and other foreign troops providing tsunami disaster relief must leave the country by the end of March and ordered aid workers Wednesday to declare their travel plans or face expulsion from devastated Aceh province on Sumatra island.

The government's moves highlight its sensitivities over a foreign military operation in this country _ albeit a humanitarian one _ and underscore its efforts to regain control of Aceh province, the scene of a decades-old conflict between separatist rebels and federal troops accused of human rights abuses.

The latest restrictions placed on the international presence came as the aircraft carrier leading the U.S. military's tsunami relief effort steamed out of Indonesian waters Wednesday after the government declined to let the ship's fighter pilots use its airspace for training missions. The USS Abraham Lincoln's diversion was not expected to affect aid flights, however.

U.S. Marines have also scaled back their plans to send hundreds of troops ashore to build roads and clear rubble. The two sides reached a compromise in which the Americans agreed not to set up a base camp on Indonesia or carry weapons.

Instead, the Marines _ some 2,000 of whom were diverted to tsunami relief from duty in Iraq _ will keep a "minimal footprint" in the country, with most returning to ships at night, said Col. Tom Greenwood, commander of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

In Washington, the White House asked the Indonesian government to explain why it was demanding that the U.S. military and other foreign troops providing disaster relief leave the country by March 31.

"We've seen the reports. . . . We'll seek further clarification from Indonesia about what this means," said Scott McClellan, press secretary to President Bush. "We hope that the government of Indonesia and the military in Indonesia will continue the strong support they have provided to the international relief efforts so far."

In announcing the decision, Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla said Tuesday that "a three-month period is enough, even sooner the better."

Cabinet Secretary Sudi Silalahi explained that Indonesia hopes to take over the humanitarian work by March 26, which will be exactly three months after the massive 9.0-magnitude earthquake set off waves across southern Asia and Africa.

Starting Jan. 26, Indonesia will "gradually take over the role of foreign military and nonmilitary assistance," Silalahi said.

Indonesia is not the only affected country that is ambivalent about U.S. military aid.

After the earthquake and tsunami, the U.S. military dispatched the Abraham Lincoln battle group to Sumatra and three ships carrying Marines toward Sri Lanka, where more than 30,000 people were killed. But two ships carrying Marines were diverted to Sumatra after Sri Lanka downgraded its request for help. India, where more than 10,000 were killed, rebuffed U.S. aid offers.

Some 13,000 U.S. military personnel, most of them aboard ships in the Abraham Lincoln's battle group, are taking part in the relief effort.

In Indonesia, hundreds of troops from other nations are also helping out, along with U.N. agencies and scores of nongovernmental aid groups.

They, too, have agreed not to carry weapons while on Indonesian soil and are leaving security to the Indonesian military.

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