Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - The aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln has left the waters off Indonesia's Aceh, following a month-long emergency relief operation following the Dec. 26 tsunami.
The carrier's departure marked the beginning of the end of U.S. military support effort for victims of the earthquake-generated disaster, which cost between 160,000 and 180,000 lives -- more than 113,000 in Aceh alone.
The commander of the overall on-scene military headquarters located at Utapao, Thailand, said that by the end of this week the combined support force in the region would be disestablished.
U.S. forces were deployed to Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka -- the hardest-hit of the 11 affected countries -- three days after the tsunami.
In each of the three countries, the help was aimed at minimizing loss of life and easing suffering of survivors in the immediate aftermath, while other government and private agencies were gearing up to begin work in the area.
With the departure of the USS Lincoln on Friday, a newly-arrived U.S. hospital ship USNS Mercy will offer "an extensive array of medical and humanitarian capabilities," providing help to the Indonesian government. The USS Essex Expeditionary Strike Group, which includes U.S. Marines, will remain alongside the hospital ship.
\kerning2 Visiting the carrier before its departure, Indonesian Welfare Minister \kerning0 Alwi Shihab was quoted by the U.S. Embassy as saying Indonesians would remember with thanks and affection the many relief missions that were flown, the supplies that were delivered and the injured people who were helped by the Americans.
"It is with deep appreciation that I say to all of you, thank you for a great job, well done," he told gathered crewmembers.
In a special message to sailors and Marines involved in the efforts, Secretary of the Navy Gordon England praised their "compassion, professionalism and dedicated efforts."
"With more than 6,000 flight hours and more than 20 million pounds of medicine, food and water delivered to date, you saved thousands of lives and eased the suffering of thousands more," he said.
"You showed the world American compassion and mercy. At sea, ashore, and in the air, you brought honor to yourselves and to our nation."
The presence of foreign forces in Aceh has been sensitive because the province has been the scene of a long-running and bloody separatist conflict. The recent resumption of talks in Finland between representatives of Jakarta and separatist rebels has renewed hopes that a settlement may eventually be found.
"All along we have agreed with the Indonesians that we would stay as long as needed and not a moment longer," U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia B. Lynn Pascoe told the USS Lincoln crew late last week.
"The time has come to move on to the next stage of rebuilding and reconstruction and to pass the torch on to other organizations, such as USAID, to take on this task."
Australia, Japan and France also provided military assistance to the tsunami-ravaged countries.
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