- The Washington Times - Friday, December 31, 2004

President Bush yesterday announced that the United States will commit $350 million to help tsunami victims in the Indian Ocean region, more than the combined contributions of Europe’s richest nations.

“Our contributions will continue to be revised as the full effects of this terrible tragedy become clearer,” Mr. Bush said from his ranch in Crawford, Texas. “Our thoughts and prayers are with all those affected by this epic disaster.”

Mr. Bush said the increase in aid — which the White House has maintained since the disaster struck would approach $1 billion — was warranted by the findings of American assessment teams that are touring the stricken areas.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush are scheduled to lead a presidential delegation to the region tomorrow.

After meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in New York yesterday, Mr. Powell encouraged other nations to join in helping the thousands injured and millions left homeless by the disaster.

“I would encourage all nations of the world to reach deep and to make as significant a contribution as they’re able to, because this is an unprecedented disaster,” Mr. Powell said. “It’s unprecedented in my career, and I have been through a number of humanitarian crises over the last 20 years. So I hope that the world will be generous in this regard.”

Mr. Bush this week organized a core group of nations to help coordinate the relief effort, including the United States, India, Japan and Australia. The United Nations was added to the group Thursday, and Canada joined yesterday after Prime Minister Paul Martin spoke with Mr. Bush by telephone.

Jan Egeland, the U.N. emergency relief coordinator, announced yesterday that “we are now counting new pledges by the hour,” and the total relief has reached more than $1.2 billion.

The United States pledged $4 million the day after the tsunami struck. That amount was increased to $15 million on the second day of the crisis and to $35 million on the third day.

Mr. Powell said yesterday’s “tenfold increase” in U.S. aid “is indicative of American generosity, but it also is indicative of the need, as the need is great and not just for immediate relief but for long-term reconstruction, rehabilitation, family support, economic support that’s going to be needed for these countries to get back up on their feet.”

Despite assurances early this week that more U.S. money would be forthcoming once it could be determined where it would be best spent, the Bush administration was characterized as “stingy” by Mr. Egeland, who noted that European countries give a higher percentage of their gross national product in foreign aid. He later backed off his remarks after coming under fire from U.S. officials.

France on Thursday pledged $57 million, leading Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin to boast that his country had vaulted to “the head of all the contributors.” But yesterday, Britain promised $95 million, Sweden $75.5 million and Spain $68 million.

Yesterday’s increase in U.S. aid was not in response to the escalating contributions of other countries, Mr. Powell said.

“What I wanted to do is to make sure that I had a basis to go to the president and make the recommendation that he commit this amount of money and not just that each day everybody was trying to play ‘Can you top this?’” he said, hinting that more money could be pledged soon.

“I’m not sure $350 million is the end number,” Mr. Powell said. “It’s the number that we settled on for now.”

Mr. Bush also had been criticized for setting up the core group of nations, with a former U.N. international development secretary telling the Scotsman newspaper that it was “yet another attempt to undermine the U.N.” by the president.

Mr. Annan, however, dispelled that notion by agreeing with Mr. Powell’s characterization of the core group as a “coordination mechanism” that needed to be “created rather quick and rested on countries that were nearby in the region with assets.”

Mr. Powell said, “In due course, we hope the core group will work itself out of business because we will have brought all of the international organizations into play under the overall supervision and leadership of the United Nations.”

Mr. Bush yesterday also outlined what he called “an initial substantial effort” by his administration.

“To help coordinate the massive relief effort, disaster response officials are on the ground, and we have established a support center in Thailand that is manned and operational,” he said. “More than 20 patrol and cargo aircraft have been made available to assess the disaster and deliver relief supplies.”

Mr. Bush also praised the “reports of strong charitable donations” that “reflect the true generosity and compassion of the American people.”

U.S. corporations have contributed more than $80 million so far, and the American Red Cross reported $18 million in individual donations this week. Amazon.com also began a collection on behalf of the Red Cross, and more than $10.2 million has been donated.

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