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Indonesia tries to dispel aid corruption charges

/ Source: The Associated Press

Indonesia on Tuesday moved to dispel charges that corrupt officials were siphoning off aid earmarked for tsunami-battered Aceh province, as Southeast Asian nations sought to lure back foreign tourists scared off by the disaster.

Indonesia’s Health Ministry, meanwhile, significantly changed the way it tallies deaths due to last month’s waves, saying it would only count victims who have been buried and that the missing would retain that status for a full year.

The ministry’s death toll dropped from about 170,000 to just over 96,000 under the new rules, but at the same time it added substantially to the missing, bringing the combined total of dead and missing from about 180,000 to 220,000. Most of the missing are presumed dead.

The new procedure also means that two of three Indonesian agencies tallying the dead now agree on a death toll after weeks of large discrepancies. The other, the Social Affairs Ministry, raised its death toll Tuesday by some 9,000 to 123,198 dead, with 12,046 missing.

Both Indonesia and Sri Lanka, the two worst-hit nations, have reported conflicting death toll figures — reflecting both the disaster’s enormity and the difficulty of the task.

Sri Lankan officials were still unable to reconcile a discrepancy of more than 7,000 dead, with one ministry saying it has counted 38,195 bodies while another ministry puts the death toll at 30,957. President Chandrika Kumaratunga has been asked to intervene to sort out the problem.

Indonesia, one of the world’s most graft-ridden nations, said it would publish a monthly list of aid donated for relief operations in Aceh province.

“We will announce every month, on the 26th, the money we receive,” said Welfare Minister Alwi Shihab. “We will list down all contributions and where it is going to avoid any suspicion (of graft).”

Small-scale graft has already been reported, with some soldiers and government officials charging relief agencies “administrative fees” to escort convoys of trucks in Aceh or to process tents and other equipment arriving at Jakarta’s airport, aid workers say.

Efforts to boost tourism
One month after the killer waves ravaged coastlines in the Indian Ocean region, scaring away foreigners at the height of the tourist season, affected nations were trying to find ways to bring them back.

After the tsunami, many European governments, such as Denmark, Norway and Sweden, issued advisories to their citizens not to travel to devastated areas in Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and the Maldives. Some of the advisories have since been lifted.

Such warnings might lead to “the perception that the whole region cannot be visited,” Malaysian Tourism Minister Leo Michael Toyad said at a two-day conference attended by tourism ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

The ministers, who wrap up the meeting in Malaysia later Tuesday, were expected to agree on a wide range of cooperation in tourism, including easing visa restrictions to boost travel by citizens within Southeast Asian countries.

In Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, a fire that started Monday night was still raging Tuesday across a debris-strewn area spanning half a mile. Gas cylinders among the ruins of homes were exploding as they caught fire.

No one was known to be living in the area, as much of it was flattened by the Dec. 26 tsunami. Firefighters said they were running out of water, and the debris made it hard for fire trucks to get closer to the blaze.