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Concerns of possible corruption emerging

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- As relief officials struggle to reach homeless tsunami survivors, another concern is quietly making the rounds of donor meetings: the threat of corruption.

The United Nations and aid groups say they have seen little evidence of local officials skimming funds or reselling relief supplies in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and other hard-hit countries. Still, they fear the issue could discourage some people from contributing to the recovery effort.

''I think we're more concerned that the image of it would hold people back from sending money because they fear the money would end up in the wrong pockets," Michael Elmquist, head of UN relief efforts in Indonesia's Aceh Province, said yesterday.

''I don't think it's happening, but the fear is there," he said, suggesting that people donate through established international groups to allay those worries.

More than $3 billion has been pledged so far to help rebuild from the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami waves that killed about 150,000 people. Corruption is expected to be on the agenda when world leaders, including UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and US Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, meet today in Jakarta to coordinate relief efforts.

Given the size of the relief operation and the number of groups involved, officials concede graft will be a question. They note that the last big aid effort -- after a December 2003 earthquake in Bam, Iran -- was hampered by bureaucratic bottlenecks and allegations of corruption, including charges that one Iranian official profited from the disaster.

Concerns appear to focus most on Indonesia, which is ranked among the world's most corrupt countries by Transparency International, a watchdog group based in Berlin. Indonesia's jails are filled with officials charged with graft, and the Aceh governor is on trial for allegedly taking money meant for villages and padding the purchase price of a helicopter.

Several relief efforts in Indonesian regions beset by civil conflict have been marred by corruption. Aid officials in Ambon, where Christians and Muslims have fought for years, are on trial for exaggerating refugee figures and pocketing the additional state funds. Local antigraft activists fear more than 30 percent of the $1 billion projected to be spent on Indonesia's recovery could be stolen -- about the average that disappears each year from the national government's budget.

They are particularly concerned because the aid is going to Aceh, where a decades-old separatist insurgency has left local authority essentially in the hands of the Indonesian military, an institution often accused of graft.

Indonesia Corruption Watch, one of several nonprofit groups that campaign against graft, said it already has gotten reports of bureaucrats reselling donated rice in Aceh and aid supplies being pilfered before they reach the provincial capital of Banda Aceh.

''Based on our experience, corruption in disaster recovery programs in Indonesia is rampant," said the organization's Luky Djani. ''We're expecting corruption in Aceh because there is so much aid coming into the province."

So far, no tsunami-related graft has been reported in Sri Lanka or India, but activists warn that it is only a matter of time.

''Once major money flows in, there may be a lot of corruption," said Dr. S. R. Srikrishna, a volunteer with the British group ActionAid International in India's southern Tamil Nadu state.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia, whose antigraft campaign has dominated his first two months in office, is expected to appoint a Cabinet-level official to oversee aid operations.

''To assure foreign assistance is being properly used, I will personally direct and control the funds," Yudhoyono said yesterday.

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