- The Washington Times - Monday, January 3, 2005

PHUKET, Thailand — Florida Gov. Jeb Bush flew with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to this devastated resort area today in a visit that Mr. Bush said was meant “to show not only our government’s support but the American people’s support” for victims of the Dec. 26 tsunami.

The president’s brother and the nation’s top diplomat headed the first high-level American delegation to tour the region since a massive undersea earthquake and subsequent giant waves devastated a dozen countries bordering the Indian Ocean.

The group, which includes Andrew Natsios, director of the U.S. Agency for International Development, also will visit Indonesia and Sri Lanka, which were the most severely battered by the disaster.

While in Asia, Mr. Powell also will join U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and regional leaders at a summit called by leaders of the Association for South East Asian Nations for Thursday in Jakarta, Indonesia, to coordinate international aid for victims.

Mr. Bush told reporters that he had been asked by his brother to accompany Mr. Powell, saying the presence of a family member of the president was a clear signal to the region of the importance that President Bush placed on the relief effort.

The governor said his experience with disasters in Florida, and a 1988 trip he made to Armenia after a devastating earthquake there, showed the importance of such visits while basic emergency-relief work is getting organized.

The governor said many of the relief personnel from the U.S. government, international agencies and private groups have been working virtually round-the-clock and “need our encouragement.”

“My experience has been … that you’re not in the way when you come a long distance to say thanks,” he said.

Mr. Natsios said the high-profile U.S. visit also provided a greatly needed psychological boost to tsunami victims — many still in shock as they confront the loss of their families, their homes and their livelihoods.

“The visits of high-level people, we have found, tend to restore some sense of hope to these people that they are not totally lost,” Mr. Natsios said.

Mr. Powell said he was sensitive to the fact that the delegation could use up resources needed for disaster relief, but said leaders in the region had pushed strongly for the visit.

“When I had concerns that we would be intruding in Sri Lanka and did not have it on the original schedule, the foreign minister of Sri Lanka called and said, ‘Please come, if it’s only for a few hours at the airport. It’s important for Sri Lankans to see a United States presence here,’” Mr. Powell said.

He also expressed hope that the tsunami and the international relief effort might “give us a little traction” in resolving violent separatist disputes in Sri Lanka and Indonesia’s Aceh province.

“To the extent it sort of quiets things in these conflicts, then maybe there is an opportunity for political momentum,” he said.

But he said the focus is on easing the humanitarian crisis and on longer-term rehabilitation efforts for the region, not on political advantage or to improve the U.S. image among Muslims.

“We’re doing this because there are human beings in need, in desperate need.”

The U.S. delegation met with an military task force headed by Lt. Gen. Robert R. Blackman Jr. that is assessing local needs and determining what U.S. military and financial resources can be brought to bear. Mr. Powell also discussed relief efforts with Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra before leaving for Phuket this morning.

Mr. Powell brushed aside criticisms of the initial U.S. response to the Dec. 26 disaster, noting that many countries had “ramped up” their aid packages as the extent of the devastation became clear during the week.

“I think things are going exceptionally well considering we are just eight days into a catastrophe that struck 12 countries,” he said.

The United States to date has pledged $350 million, part of an international aid package of more than $2 billion.

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