- The Washington Times - Friday, January 7, 2005

JAKARTA, Indonesia — The United Nations yesterday took command of the global relief effort for victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami, as the United States agreed to dissolve the informal “core group” of countries that initially coordinated aid.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told a daylong summit of regional and world leaders gathered here that the U.S.-organized core group — including Japan, Australia, India, Canada and the Netherlands — had “helped to catalyze the international response,” but now would “fold itself into the broader coordination efforts of the United Nations.”

But donor nations will continue to control how their money is spent, and the U.N. will only coordinate the relief. The Bush administration emphasizes that the U.N., which has been wracked by accusations of embezzlement of oil-for-food money, will not have access to the cash.

Mr. Powell’s announcement came as U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan outlined a $977 million, six-month spending package for the region, including food, medicine, shelter and reconstruction funds.

Overall, more than $4 billion has been pledged in aid for victims, with the death toll above 140,000 and as many as 5 million people left homeless.

Mr. Powell later told reporters that the Bush administration would partially lift a ban on military sales to Indonesia to offer spare parts for giant Hercules C-130 cargo planes that have become the principal delivery vehicle for aid to stricken regions of the country.

Just a third of Indonesia’s fleet of 24 C-130s is flying because of a lack of parts and repair delays.

Indonesia is believed to have suffered more than 94,000 fatalities from the Dec. 26 earthquake and killer waves, which claimed victims in 12 countries bordering the Indian Ocean.

U.S. officials emphasized that the United States and other major donors would retain control of how their money would be spent, with the United Nations limited to a coordinating role.

The Bush administration has pledged at least $350 million, a figure that does not include millions of dollars being spent each day to deploy the U.S. military on relief operations in the region.

Australia, which made the largest single pledge of more than $800 million, said yesterday it prefers to deal directly with Indonesia and other affected countries in disbursing its aid.

“That is a much better outcome than pushing money through international organizations,” Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told CNN in an interview.

Mr. Powell said the United Nations would play “a lead role, but not the only lead role” in coordinating relief.

He pointedly noted that U.S. military personnel and private aid organizations have done virtually all of the relief work to date around Indonesia’s Aceh province, with U.N. humanitarian organizations still struggling to establish a major presence.

He also said a regional U.S. relief center at the military base in Utapao, Thailand, will remain in operation, and may even expand cooperation with foreign military and civilian relief groups.

Mr. Powell, who toured devastated coastal areas of Thailand and Indonesia this week, visits Sri Lanka today to survey the damage and meet with officials.

Mr. Annan told the summit the world was in a “race against time,” with the estimated 500,000 injured and homeless from the tsunami facing a “second wave of death” from disease and unsanitary conditions.

Mr. Annan echoed private aid officials in saying it was vital that the international pledges are quickly translated into real funds and supplies.

In past crises, notably the December 2003 earthquake in Iran that killed tens of thousands, Iranian officials complained that just a fraction of the promised $1 billion in international help was delivered.

Mr. Powell said the U.S. pledge of $350 million could go higher, and that the Bush administration would deliver what it promised.

“When the United States says $350 million, it means $350 million,” he said.

Amid efforts to expand relief, health officials warned yesterday that the death toll of more than 140,000 from the tsunami could jump sharply without a continual supply of aid.

The World Health Organization said that if basic needs — particularly access to safe drinking water — were not restored by week’s end infectious diseases could kill tens of thousands.

“We now estimate that as many as 150,000 people are at extreme risk if a major disease outbreak in the affected areas occurs,” the Associated Press quoted WHO Director-General Lee Jong-wook as saying.

For the moment, though, the threat of an outbreak of waterborne disease is being held in check by medical aid flooding into the region, U.N. officials said.

While there are cases of diarrhea, respiratory and skin diseases and mental trauma, there have been no major outbreaks of disease in Sumatra’s devastated Aceh region, the U.N. health agency said.

The Jakarta aid conference was a welcome break for U.S. officials who have felt a diplomatic chill at recent international gatherings over the Bush administration’s tough foreign policy line.

Mr. Powell noted that in a string of bilateral meetings with other foreign leaders, “we have not had one single discussion about Iraq.”

President Bush’s brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, flew to Washington yesterday after accompanying Mr. Powell on the first four days of his trip.

Mr. Powell will travel to Nairobi, Kenya, to witness the signing of a peace deal between the government of Sudan and separatist rebels.

The Bush administration worked hard to broker a deal in the 20-year-old civil war pitting the Islamic government in Khartoum against the black African rebels, many of them Christian or followers of traditional African faiths.

The deal could open the way for progress in Darfur, Sudan’s western region, where a government-backed campaign to suppress another rebellion was labeled a “genocide” by Mr. Powell in September.

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