UTAPAO, Thailand — Combined Support Forces working on relief efforts in South Asia moved 3.4 million pounds of relief aid and flew 1,224 missions as of Friday, said Marine Lt. Col. Robert Krieg, a force planning team member.

About 19,500 servicemembers are deployed — 12,000 aboard ships — in support of Operation Unified Assistance, the massive U.S. military effort to help tsunami-ravaged South Asia.

In addition to the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group operating off the coast of Indonesia, heavy lift helicopters from the USS Bonhomme Richard and Expeditionary Strike Group 5 and assets from the USS Fort McHenry from Sasebo Naval Base, Japan, continued ferrying aid to Indonesia.

Krieg also said Sasebo’s USS Essex Amphibious Ready Group is en route to eventually replace the Bonhomme Richard.

In Indonesia, the hardest-hit nation, military aircraft including 40 helicopters — assisted by Marine Corps landing craft, air cushions — moved 165,000 pounds of relief aid into damaged coastal areas and finished transporting a French field clinic into the Sumatran city of Meulaboh.

U.S. Navy medics established a dental clinic and saw 100 patients Wednesday while engineers continued assessing washed-out bridges along the west coast, Krieg said.

U.S. officials continued planning the use of an Indonesian airstrip on Sabang Island off the Aceh coast. U.S. and other nations’ military aircraft could use the airstrip to take pressure off the congested airport at Banda Aceh, Krieg said.

In Sri Lanka, Marine engineers conducted two cleanup projects and U.S. Coast Guard C-130s arrived to assist the airlift.

And in Thailand, military aircraft continued airlifting relief to aid agencies in Phuket. About 800 servicemembers currently are based at the mission headquarters in Utapao.

Krieg said operations overall are evolving from immediate relief assistance to sustaining refugees and others affected by the disaster.

The initial plan to bring four key components — water, airlift, medical support and engineer capabilities to remove debris — gradually is being adjusted through continued assessments and coordination with local governments to meet the changing needs.

Emphasis now is moving toward repairing essential infrastructure and preventing epidemics and disease. However, each of the three countries being assisted, Krieg said, has very different needs.

Meanwhile, the Indonesian government’s recently announced restrictions on foreign military operations are not “impact[ING] U.S. naval forces providing relief,” Rear Adm. Victor G. Guillory told Pentagon reporters in a telephone session from Utapao, Thailand.

Earlier this week, Indonesia’s Vice President, Jusuf Kalla, announced that foreign troops must leave the country’s restive Aceh province by the end of March, while cabinet ministers set a March 26 deadline for assuming control of tsunami relief efforts from international humanitarian groups and foreign military forces.

Guillory, who is deputy commander of U.S. Naval forces supporting Operation Unified Assistance, the coordinated multinational relief effort, confirmed that the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier left Indonesian territorial waters Wednesday to conduct training missions by U.S. fighter jets that are based on the vessel.

However, such movements are “a routine procedure,” Guillory said, underplaying reports that Jakarta’s government had refused to allow Indonesia’s airspace to be used for such training.

A ship as large as the Lincoln, Guillory said, requires “a great deal of room to conduct fixed-wing operations. That’s why [the Lincoln] moved away from the coast for a fixed period of time.”

Guillory said that the Lincoln would return to its previous station once the flight training is over.

During the fighter jet exercise, meanwhile, the Lincoln’s helicopters are continuing to fly into Indonesia to carry food and water to remote communities along the devastated west coast of that country, Guillory said.

Stars and Stripes reporter Lisa Burgess contributed to this report.

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