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Leave it to the Marines

Posted by Richard Monday, January 10, 2005

While the BBC devotes its time and air space to giving the United Nations undeserved publicity, a nasty little situation is developing in Indonesia which, as always, it and most of the other media are ignoring.

Hats off, therefore, to the Financial Times which is reporting that the Indonesian government has delayed US Navy plans to deploy 1,000 Marines via landing craft from the USS Bonhomme Richard on to the tsunami-stricken west coast of Indonesia's Aceh province.

Major Rick Steele of the US Navy said the US had planned to deploy the marines at the weekend to help provide water purification services, reconstruct power lines, restore hospitals, repair roads and rebuild bridges as well as providing other basic aid.

The Bonhomme Richard is positioned off Meulaboh, a town that according to the UN was 80 percent destroyed by the tsunamis, and relief is urgently needed.

The main road between the Acehnese capital of Banda Aceh and Meulaboh has been severed, slowing the aid operation. Yet Major Steele said the US was unable to proceed with the operations until it received an official request from the Indonesian military.

The reason given for delay is said to be because of Indonesian concern that it might resemble an invasion. However, aid agencies are hinting that the the military could have other motives in ensuring the area remains free of US military personnel.

Aid has been reaching Meulaboh by air, but one senior agency official said: "We've had some reports of TNI [the Indonesian army] hoarding supplies up to 30 percent in some places." Hence, the TNI are quite happy to have helicopters deliver aid, but are less willing to have US boots on the ground in case they see what really is going on.

Something of this may well have been the reason why the Bonhomme Richard was turned away from Sri Lanka earlier this week, another setback curiously unreported by the media.

One might have thought that this type of political and co-ordination issue might have been just the task for which the UN (or even the EU) was admirably suited. But no. The UN is far too busy giving self-serving press conferences to the credulous media, and working on its "assessments" to concern itself with such issues – and the EU is nowhere to be seen.

Thus, while Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the UN's humanitarian co-ordination agency, from the safety of her comfortable office in Geneva is telling everyone who will listen that: "The watchword is cash," it is being left to Colonel David Kelley, in charge of US liaison with the Indonesian military, to get the problem sorted out.

In blunt military fashion, he says: "The Indonesians have to make a call. These marines that are here are not going to be here forever."