U.N. official backtracks after calling U.S. ‘stingy’

A United Nations official yesterday backpedaled from his claim that the United States is being “stingy” in its response to the Asian earthquake disaster after Secretary of State Colin L. Powell disputed the remark.

“The United States is not stingy,” Mr. Powell said as the United States increased its initial package of disaster relief from $15 million to $35 million.

“We will do more,” he added during a round of morning TV interviews. “I wish that comment hadn’t been made.”

Later in the day, Jan Egeland, United Nations undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, called the assistance pledged by the United States and Europe “very generous.”

“I have been misinterpreted when I yesterday said that my belief that rich countries in general can be more generous,” he added. “This has nothing to do with any particular country or the response to this emergency in the early days. The response so far has been overwhelmingly positive.”

The exchange came as aid agencies struggled to cope with the vast humanitarian catastrophe. The United Nations said it was preparing to issue what could be its largest appeal for donations in its history to cope with its biggest and costliest relief effort.

As of yesterday, dozens of countries and relief groups had pledged more than $100 million in help for South and East Asia, said the Geneva-based U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

“With so many international donors, the key is coordinating it so we get the right things in the right places at the right time,” said Jules Frost, director of Emergency Response and Disaster Mitigation for WorldVision, the Christian children’s charity based in Washington state.

Early today, Australia said it would more than triple its emergency aid to nations stricken by the tsunami and announced a joint initiative with the United States, Japan and India to coordinate efforts to cope with the disaster.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said the government was adding $25 million Australian (about $19.5 million in U.S. currency) to an earlier pledge of $10 million Australian, with most destined for Indonesia and much of the rest to Sri Lanka.

“So far we’ve committed $35 million, and I think in the end we will have to commit considerably more,” Mr. Downer said. “It’s also a fact of life that we have very great responsibilities — we are a prosperous and a successful country and when it comes to a situation like this we must be prepared to use some of our prosperity to help our fellow human beings.”

Other big donors besides the United States and Australia include Japan ($30 million), Canada ($4 million), Kuwait ($2 million), Germany ($3 million), Netherlands ($2 million) and the European Union, which could release as much as $45 million.

But at least one political consideration is limiting the help sent to the tsunami victims. The British Broadcasting Corp. reports that Sri Lanka rejected a 150-person Israeli rescue mission, reportedly because the team, set to leave yesterday, included 60 soldiers.

Sri Lanka restored diplomatic ties with Israel in 2000, despite objections from the island’s Muslim minority. Instead, a smaller team will escort a convoy carrying emergency supplies, Israeli officials said.

Meanwhile, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) launched a new campaign to raise more than 50 million Swiss francs ($44 million) after issuing a flash appeal Sunday for 7.5 million Swiss francs ($6.57 million).

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