U.N. says children suffer in Aceh due to inadequate tsunami relief

Saturday, January 29, 2005

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia -- One in eight children in Indonesia's Aceh province are malnourished, disease still stalks refugee camps and relief deliveries are erratic more than a month after a tsunami devastated the region, U.N. officials said Friday.

Securing aid deliveries -- as well as how to cement a brittle cease-fire in their three-decade conflict -- were the focus of talks Friday in Finland between the Indonesian government and Aceh rebel leaders that were spurred by the tsunami. Separately, Tamil Tiger insurgents in tsunami-hit Sri Lanka said they were temporarily putting their separatist struggle on hold to focus on the disaster.

On Thailand's resort island of Phuket, delegates from dozens of countries debated where a regional tsunami warning system should be based and what technology is needed to make it work.

Despite the bleak humanitarian review in Aceh, the overall picture was one of improvement, a senior U.N. official said. Aceh bore the brunt of the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami, which killed between 145,000 and 178,000 people in 11 countries and left tens of thousands more missing and feared dead.

"We know there are needs that are not being met," said Bo Asplund, the U.N. representative in Indonesia, speaking in the provincial capital of Banda Aceh.

But the world body was "no longer worried about (whether) anyone is starving. The schools are reopening. That is a sure sign of recovery."

One U.N. report said unsanitary conditions are appalling in refugee camps along Aceh's west coast -- the closest land to the earthquake's epicenter. Some camps have no latrines, forcing people to defecate in fields or near rivers and ponds where they also bathe.

Asplund acknowledged the conditions, but said the situation was "well onto the path of recovery."

In a separate report, the United Nations said 12.7 percent of children in Banda Aceh are malnourished -- a condition that stunts growth, retards mental development and weakens the immune system. The situation, which UNICEF described as a "critical emergency," could be even worse outside the city, it said.

"It's a scary finding. Quite honestly, unless we improve water and sanitation in the camps where these children are staying, it's going to get worse," said Ali Mokdad, a U.S. researcher in charge of a UNICEF survey team.

In Calang, a devastated city on Aceh's west coast, children have dry skin and pale lips, signs of malnutrition, said Dr. Epi, who like some Indonesians uses only one name. They have only rice, crackers and noodles to eat and lack enough protein-rich food such as meat and fish.

Efforts to deliver aid to the needy in Aceh have been menaced by a separatist conflict. The rebels, who have been fighting since 1976, and government forces have said since the disaster they would stop fighting during the emergency, but each side has accused the other of renewed violence.

Negotiators from the two sides held their first day of peace talks in Helsinki, Finland, on Friday to try to strike a truce.

"The meeting was very constructive and was carried out in a positive spirit," said Pauliina Arola, a Finnish official involved in hosting the talks. "They discussed the humanitarian crisis. It was the most urgent issue."

In Sri Lanka, the government and Tamil Tiger rebels moved closer to jointly allocating foreign aid to rebuild tsunami-damaged areas under guerrilla control, officials said early Saturday.

The Tigers responded positively to a government suggestion for a three-tiered system of committees to review project proposals at the district, regional and political levels in the Tamil-dominated north and east, officials from both sides said after a meeting.

Government representatives were to debrief President Chandrika Kumaratunga on the talks before meeting the Tigers again next week with the hope of finalizing the makeup of the committees, the officials said on condition of anonymity.

If an agreement is reached next week, it would mark a significant step: the first collaboration on a political level since peace talks collapsed in April 2003.

The meeting took place hours after the rebels backed away from a demand to directly receive international funds for tsunami victims in their territory. The Tigers also said they were putting their independence struggle on hold in order to deal with the disaster.

Attention also turned to averting future disasters.

The two-day conference on Phuket follows a broad endorsement of a tsunami warning system at a U.N. gathering in Japan last week. The United States, Germany and other countries have drawn plans for how to set up the network.

Several nations were offering to host a regional center that would collect data, analyze it and issue warnings. Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra proposed using the Bangkok-based Asian Disaster Preparedness Center as the regional hub.

But Indonesia argued its proximity to the tectonic fault that spawned the tsunami makes it a strong candidate. India contended it has the technological know-how and government institutions to lead the system.

It wasn't immediately clear if the differences would be enough to hold up development of the system. The conference is due to end Saturday.

Experts say scores of lives could have been saved if a warning system -- like the one that already exists in the Pacific -- had been in place in the Indian Ocean on Dec. 26.

Associated Press Writers Joe Coleman in Phuket, Thailand; Shimali Senanayake in Colombo, Sri Lanka; Kenji Hall in Jakarta and Beth Gardiner in Lamreh, Indonesia, contributed to this report.

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