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Powerful tremor triggers panic in Indonesia

January 25, 2005

BANDA ACEH, Jan 24: Powerful earthquakes rocked Asia on Monday, killing at least one person and further rattling traumatized survivors of last month's killer tsunami.

Indonesia and separatist rebels in Aceh agreed to hold talks, seeking to turn the calamity into a chance for peace, as civilians prepared for a larger role in relief efforts in the ravaged province on Sumatra island.

Almost a month after the tsunami killed as many as 234,000 people across the Indian Ocean, a strong earthquake hit Indonesia's eastern Sulawesi island, killing one person, and a tremor rattled the provincial capital Banda Aceh, sending frightened tsunami survivors running into the streets.

Another quake, measuring 6.5, was recorded west of Great Nicobar island in India's Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which were badly hit by the Dec 26 tsunami, but there were no reports of casualties or damage.

The talks between the Indonesian government and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) - locked in a conflict that has killed more than 12,000 people in the last three decades - were expected to take place in Helsinki this week, mediated by former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari.

"We are moving resolutely to end separatist conflicts through peaceful means," Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono told business leaders in Jakarta without directly mentioning the planned talks.

He reiterated an offer of "special autonomy" for the Acehnese and amnesty for GAM members willing to lay down their guns. Concerns about clashes between the Indonesian army and the rebels have stalked tsunami relief efforts in Aceh. The military said last week it had killed 120 rebels in a two-week period.

News of the peace initiative was greeted with shrugs by some tsunami-weary residents of Banda Aceh, the capital of Aceh province where most of Indonesia's nearly 174,000 victims died.

"To be honest, I don't really care," said Amirudin, 56, who lost his wife and two children in the tsunami. "I mean, this place is already in ruins, why should we need another war? "If they want to make a peace, that's good. But I don't really care," he said, standing atop the rubble of his home.

CIVILIAN RELIEF: With the United States and other foreign militaries set to reduce forces committed to helping tsunami survivors, aid workers prepared for a shift to civilian control of a relief operation that is feeding and providing medical care for hundreds of thousands of people in Aceh.

"I believe there is a consensus on the need for the civilian authorities here at the provincial level and the national level to really take full control of this operation," Joel Boutroue, chief of the UN operation in Aceh, told reporters on Monday.

A team of 20 doctors and nurses from war-torn Afghanistan, a country heavily dependent on foreign aid, joined the operation in Banda Aceh on Monday. Yudhoyono said he expected emergency relief to be finished by the end of March, including finding and burying the dead, sheltering the homeless, clearing rubble, preventing disease and reconnecting roads.

With some roads still impassable in northern Sumatra, foreign aid agencies were looking for alternatives to military helicopters to ferry supplies to remote villages, where relief efforts have lagged.

Ships were being offloaded at Meulaboh, a hard-hit town south east of Banda Aceh. Three Japanese military vessels were to arrive off Banda Aceh on Monday. The huge international effort had succeeded in bringing stability to vulnerable Acehnese and some of the homeless were moving out of refugee camps to stay with extended families, Boutroue said. -Reuters