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U.S. announces $350 million in tsunami aid

The United States would give $350 million in aid to the areas devastated by Sunday's tsunami, a government official said on Friday, providing a massive boost to the international effort.
/ Source: news services

The United States is pledging $350 million to help tsunami victims, a tenfold increase over its first wave of aid, President Bush announced Friday. The U.S. aid contribution could rise even beyond that, if needed, Secretary of State Colin Powell said later in the day.

That sum will provide a substantial boost to the overall international aid effort to areas stricken by Sunday's tsunami. As of Thursday, nations had donated about $500 million toward the world's largest-ever relief effort, including $250 million from the World Bank, but U.N. chief Kofi Annan said even more was needed.

The increase in U.S. aid will likely silence criticism of Washington's initial offer, seen by many as meager in light of the enormity of the disaster and the wealth of the United States.

“Initial findings of American assessment teams on the ground indicate that the need for financial and other assistance will steadily increase in the days and weeks ahead,” Bush said Friday in a statement released in Crawford, Texas, where he is staying at his ranch.

“Our contributions will continue to be revised as the full effects of this terrible tragedy become clearer,” he said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with all those affected by this epic disaster.”

The White House announced Thursday that it would be sending a delegation led by Powell to Indian Ocean coastal areas ravaged by earthquake and tsunami to assess what more the United States needs to do. The president’s brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, will travel with him.

As the scale of the disaster became clear, other countries, including Spain and China also sharply increased their offers of aid, to $68 million and $63 million, respectively.

Military backup
As fund-raising proceeded, militaries across the globe also geared up to help. A U.S. aircraft carrier battle group was steaming to Indonesia's Sumatra island, which was closest to last Sunday's quake and is home to most of the casualties.

C-130 cargo planes touched down there Friday with blankets, medicine and the first of 80,000 body bags. New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Pakistan and scores of other nations also had planes in the air, rushing aid to victims.

"This is an unprecedented global catastrophe and it requires an unprecedented global response," Annan said, as aid agencies warned that 5 million people lack clean water, shelter, food, sanitation and medicine.

Relief flights headed to the region from Britain and France carrying bottled water, tarpaulins, cooking sets and medical supplies. Russia sent a third relief plane to Sri Lanka carrying military-issue tents, drinking water, water purification stations and disinfecting supplies.

Coordinating efforts
On Thursday, World Bank President James Wolfensohn announced release of $250 million for tsunami relief by telephone during a meeting at U.N. headquarters convened to plan the next steps in the unprecedented global relief effort, U.N. chief spokesman Fred Eckhard said.

Representatives of 18 U.N. agencies and private aid groups or coalitions participated in the meeting, either in person or via a telephone or video link, the United Nations said.

Thursday's meeting was the first in a series scheduled at the world body’s New York offices to focus on how to quickly gear up the aid campaign and prepare for an initial emergency fund-raising appeal to be launched by the United Nations next week.

Annan also held a videoconference with representatives of a four-country coalition announced by President Bush on Wednesday that will serve as “the core group” in relief coordination efforts, U.N. officials said.

Coordination appeared to be desperately needed in the chaotic aftermath of the tsunami. Survivors fought over packs of noodles in quake-stricken Indonesian streets Wednesday while relief supplies piled up at the airport for lack of cars, gas or passable roads to move them.

The United Nations will launch an international appeal Jan. 6 for money to cover the emergency response phase, but U.N. officials have said billions of dollars will be needed to rebuild the shattered countries.

Debt relief mulled
Meanwhile, there was a growing call among European nations, led by Germany and France, for the Paris Club group of 19 creditor nations to consider granting a debt moratorium for countries hit by the tsunami, to bolster economic recovery and rebuilding.

On Thursday, Canada announced it had taken such a move unilaterally and that it would urge other creditor nations about offering relief to the stricken nations.

Indonesia, which suffered the worst devastation, would likely be the greatest beneficiary of debt relief. It owes the Paris Club around $40 billion and is the largest debtor in the disaster zone, according to the World Bank.

A moratorium would mean little to countries such as Somalia and Myanmar, which stopped paying their debts to the Paris Club years ago.

Celebrities do their bit
International agencies reported an unprecedented surge in individual donations for disaster relief. The British-based relief agency Oxfam raised $1.2 million in three days from private donors.

Hong Kong Red Cross said it received $3.3 million in donations from the public and various organizations. Asia’s richest man, Li Ka-shing, who heads a global commercial empire, pitched in $3.1 million to disaster relief efforts.

Movie star Jackie Chan donated $64,282 to UNICEF, the agency said, and actor Chow Yun-fat, gave $25,600 to a disaster relief fund set up by Hong Kong's Apple Daily, the mass-market paper reported Wednesday.

In Thailand, the royal family, mourning the death of 21-year-old Poom Jensen, the Thai-American grandson of King Bhumipol Adulyadej, led nationwide calls for help for the survivors.

In the United States, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation pledged $3 million and said it raised more than $3.5 million in online donations to aid South Asian countries devastated by tsunamis.