Monday, January 3, 2005

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell yesterday left for South Asia to oversee U.S. aid efforts for tsunami victims after reaffirming the full U.S. commitment to leading the massive relief undertaking.

Mr. Powell, a retired Army general who was once chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stressed that in addition to the promise of $350 million in aid, the U.S. military is now taking an expanded role in assisting the disaster-stricken region.

“Beyond the $350 million, our Department of Defense is spending tens of millions of dollars more as we dispatched two carrier groups, a regular big aircraft carrier group and a Marine amphibious group to the region,” said Mr. Powell, whose trip with Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, will focus on the countries hit hardest by the tsunami.

The death toll has risen to more than 137,000 since the earthquake-fueled waves struck Dec. 26, but the United Nations says the number of known deaths likely will continue to grow, especially in Indonesia, where local authorities say many people are still missing.

Officials have listed 364 foreign tourists among those killed by the massive waves a week ago. At least 15 Americans died in the catastrophe, and although Mr. Powell told CNN’s “Late Edition” that there are “several thousand travelers” from the United States whose families don’t know where they are, he said it is likely most of them survived.

“I don’t expect a huge number of American casualties” among those listed as missing, Mr. Powell said.

U.N. officials say nearly 2 million survivors in coastal regions of the Indian Ocean are in need of food aid, and Mr. Powell said the U.S. approach to relief has in part been fueled by national-security interests.

“If nations are poor, if they don’t see hope, if they’re riddled by disease, if no one is helping them, then radicalism takes over,” he said. “This is an investment not only in the welfare of these people, which in and of itself is a good thing to do; it’s an investment in our own national security.”

Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told “Fox News Sunday” that overall aid from the United States eventually may reach into the billions.

U.S. legislation expected to be introduced this week could seek tsunami aid money from an anticipated White House spending request for military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. President Bush reportedly had planned to ask for between $80 billion and $100 billion for those operations.

Mr. Powell said U.S. aid so far has come from existing accounts meant for other things and will need to be replaced by Congress. But, he said, Senate leaders have “made it absolutely clear” they will work to obtain the necessary funding to replenish the accounts and added he was confident the House would do the same.

Meanwhile, reports yesterday indicated aid groups and international agencies including the United Nations, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank are putting together a reconstruction plan for the overall tsunami disaster region.

Jan Egeland, the U.N. emergency-relief coordinator who earlier criticized the world’s wealthy nations for not giving enough to the poor, yesterday said the tsunami response has been an outpouring like he had “never, ever seen before.”

U.S. corporations and individuals have come forward over the past week with millions in cash and material donations, including vaccinations and water, to aid organizations, in addition to the promises of major monetary support from the world’s wealthiest countries.

Mr. Egeland, who also appeared on “Late Edition,” cited multimillion-dollar aid offers from Japan, Britain and Sweden as part of the more than $2 billion that he said has been pledged for relief worldwide. The United States, he said, has been “ideal” in the way it has responded.

“They have also provided military assets that we are reliant upon now, as we try to reach out to the most remote places in Sumatra and Aceh, which are the worst-hit of the areas,” Mr. Egeland said.

Adding to U.S. forces deployed to the areas hardest hit by the tsunami, six CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters, from Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 362, will in the coming days head for the region, along with 100 Marines and sailors from their base in Hawaii.

In addition to difficult-to-reach areas such as the civil-war torn Aceh province, Indonesia, U.N. officials said relief teams are hoping to feed about 700,000 hungry people in Sri Lanka in the next four days.

Reuters reported that logistics centers were up and running yesterday in Rome, as well as in Jakarta and Sumatra in Indonesia, and a command-and-control center set up at the Utapao military air base in Thailand was coordinating the many civil and military flights involved in the relief effort, Mr. Egeland said.

The news agency said Australia, Britain, Germany, India, Pakistan, Singapore and the United States were among governments providing civil or military aircraft, which were invaluable in quickly translating aid contributions into actual assistance on the ground.

Mr. Egeland said that what is needed most is clean water and water-purification equipment, to help prevent outbreaks of water-borne diseases. Speaking with reporters in New York, he said that unless relief efforts are successful in getting clean water into the highest-risk areas, “diarrhea could take as many children’s lives as the tsunami in coming weeks.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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