Subject: AP: Aid Mission by the U.S. Revives Tie to Indonesia

July 26, 2000 Aid Mission by the U.S. Revives Tie to Indonesia


SEM BAGUS, Indonesia, July 25 -- Dozens of elderly villagers wearing checkered sarongs waited patiently on cots while a United States Navy corpsman prepared them for eye surgery.

Nearby, marines and Indonesian servicemen, their uniforms drenched with sweat, helped each other refurbish a dilapidated school.

"This is a great experience for us, working together with the Indonesians to help local people improve their quality of life," said Cpl. Charles Spencer, 20, of Saint Marys, W.Va., as he dug a trench for a water pipe.

Although American officers at this seaside village 530 miles east of Jakarta discounted the joint American-Indonesian exercise today as just one of many good-will missions worldwide, the 10-day project is anything but routine. It is the first time the two armed forces have worked together since American military ties with Indonesia were cut after East Timor was devastated by Indonesian troops and militiamen last year.

The Cooperation Afloat and Readiness Training mission is a result of a switch by United States policy makers alarmed by the prospect of Indonesia disintegrating under the weight of multiple religious and separatist conflicts.

Last week, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said the Clinton administration would follow Australia, which led a successful international peacekeeping operation in East Timor, in formulating policy on a potential intervention in Indonesia's strife-torn Maluku Islands. The current exercise, involving more than 400 American and Indonesian marines, sailors and medical personnel, coincides with a sharp step-up in the Muslim-Christian conflict in that archipelago, which has left more than 4,000 people dead.

On Sunday, Indonesia's president, Abdurrahman Wahid, said the United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, had told him of growing appeals for peacekeepers to be sent to the region. Mr. Wahid said his government could end the conflict by itself.

But Mr. Wahid said Indonesia's overstretched military might need logistical aid from friendly countries. Foremost among them is the United States, whose transport abilities are the best in the region.

Critics of United States policy contend that American military training and cooperation enabled Indonesia's military to commit human rights abuses while President Suharto was in power. The United States has therefore chosen to focus exclusively on aid operations as a first step to forging closer links with Indonesia's navy and air force.

The army, which underpinned Mr. Suharto's 32-year rule, has been excluded from the joint project. Instead, the navy and marines, neglected by Mr. Suharto's government and now seen as backing Mr. Wahid's political and economic reforms, were selected as partners.

Washington is "considering a program of phased re-engagement with the Indonesian military in ways designed to promote further reform," the State Department said recently.

The navy and air force -- although seen as blameless by human rights groups -- have both been hit hard by the United States embargo on military sales. Numerous navy supply ships and at least half of the air force's fleet of 19 C-130 Hercules transports have been out of service because of a lack of spare parts.

Col. Marsetio, the local Indonesian naval commander, said the humanitarian operation was "a new step after a stagnation in cooperation between the Indonesian and U.S. navies."

The operation features a United States Navy medical unit performing surgery and making eyeglasses for villagers. An Indonesian military outpost has been converted into a makeshift hospital for cataract surgery.

"This gives us a chance to gain experience that we normally wouldn't get," said Capt. Karl Holzinger, the chief surgeon. "In the States it's virtually impossible to encounter cases of mature cataracts," which completely block vision.

Down the road at the Sumberwaru elementary school, Corporal Spencer and his fellow combat engineers were contending with a group of rambunctious third-graders trying to "help" them dislodge a boulder.

"Their smiles help," Corporal Spencer said. "They just make the work much more enjoyable."

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