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Hopes dim for formal cease-fire in Aceh

Death toll rises from tsunami

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia -- Workers buried more tsunami victims in Aceh province yesterday, as a premature end to cease-fire talks between the Indonesian government and separatist rebels dampened hopes for a quick resolution to a 30-year-old conflict in the devastated province.

Five weeks after the tsunami disaster, the government said nearly 5,000 dead were found over the past week in Aceh, increasing the death toll to between 150,000 and 178,000 across 11 nations. Some 26,500 to 142,000 are missing, most of whom are presumed dead.

The variation in numbers reflects differing figures released by separate government agencies in both Sri Lanka and Indonesia, the countries hit hardest by the Dec. 26 disaster.

There had been optimism that the immensity of the disaster in Aceh on the northern tip of Sumatra island would spur Indonesia's government and rebels to find a way to end fighting and focus on rebuilding.

But hopes were dashed when truce negotiations in Helsinki broke off.

There was no word on why the meeting ended late Saturday, a day earlier than planned. Communications Minister Sofyan Djalil of Indonesia described the talks as "quite hopeful."

But former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, who convened the meeting, said neither party had accepted an invitation to a second round.

Both the insurgents, who have been fighting for an independent homeland in Aceh since 1976, and government forces declared an informal cease-fire after the tsunami. But the promises apparently have been ignored, with the military saying it has killed more than 200 suspected rebels since Dec. 26.

A clash Saturday in eastern Aceh resulted in soldiers killing a guerrilla commander and three of his fighters, said a military spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Eddyana Sulistiadie. There was no independent confirmation.

The continued violence has raised concerns about the security of relief operations in Aceh, but aid groups predicted yesterday that the break in peace negotiations would not hamper their work.

"We don't have any comment on political negotiations, but we will continue with our aid effort for as long as it is needed," said Heather Hill, a spokeswoman for the United Nations' World Food Program.

Joel Boutroue, head of UN relief efforts in Aceh, also was optimistic.

"We don't expect to be a target," Boutroue said. "I don't believe that this will hamper our access to populations made vulnerable by the tsunami."

In other developments:

French construction giant Lafarge SA, the world's largest cement supplier, said it would spend "tens of millions of dollars" to rebuild an Aceh cement factory damaged by the tsunami. "There is a lot of money coming in for the reconstruction, and naturally cement will be needed for that," said Tom Ehrart, the head of Lafarge Indonesia.

Austria said it would send a team of specialists to Sri Lanka to help rebuild the rail system, which was badly damaged. The victims in Sri Lanka included about 800 people killed when a train was swept off the tracks while traveling along the coastline.

A Russian Il-76 cargo plane carried 30 tons of flour and eight diesel-powered generators to Sri Lanka. Russia has delivered 528 tons of supplies in 23 aid flights to the tsunami zone, Emergency Situations Ministry spokesman Viktor Beltsov told the ITAR-Tass news agency.

Thailand's government is planning a tsunami museum to chronicle the plight of survivors and changes to the environment from the waves, the Thai News Agency said. Photographs, video, satellite images, and interviews with survivors already have been collected, it said.

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