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Annan asks countries to pay up quickly on tsunami aid pledges

JAKARTA, Indonesia—U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan asked international donors Thursday for nearly $1 billion to cover the first six months of relief efforts for tsunami survivors as U.N. officials predicted that the death toll could reach 200,000.

Speaking to government officials and relief experts gathered for a hastily arranged aid summit, Annan said that at least 500,000 people were injured, 1 million were without homes and 2 million were in need of food throughout the area affected by tsunami.

"What we are not fully clear on yet is how high it (the death toll) may become in Sumatra, where we still fear that the numbers may go much higher," U.N. tsunami-aid coordinator Margaret Wahlstrom said, speaking of the Indonesian island where the devastated province of Aceh is.

Wahlstrom described the coastal areas south of Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, as "pretty empty." But whether the people perished in the maelstrom Dec. 26 or fled into nearby hills isn't known.

A helicopter trip Thursday from Banda Aceh to the town of Lhoog, 35 miles south, indicated that much of what had been a populated area now showed few signs of ever having been inhabited.

Relatively near Banda Aceh, the landscape was dotted with the shattered remains of houses, schools and hospitals. But passing over what used to be Lhoknga, the landscape quickly switched to vast, empty stretches. A freighter rested a few hundred yards inland, beached far from where it was moored when the tsunami hit.

Even more desolation and destruction loomed farther south, where Lhoog once stood. A mosque stood at the center of emptiness. All but four of the district's 28 neighborhoods were gone. In one of the populated areas, about 20 people gathered as the helicopter landed. Lhoog had been home to 13,000 people.

In Washington, Congress passed legislation that would give taxpayers until Jan. 31 to make cash contributions to charities supporting relief operations in the Indian Ocean basin and still claim them as deductions for the 2004 tax year. Otherwise, taxpayers would have to wait until 2006 to claim deductions for donations made after Dec. 31, 2004. President Bush is expected to sign the bill.

Annan told the relief conference that the $1 billion would represent the first draft of the more than $3 billion that countries have pledged to tsunami relief.

"We need ... the pledges to be converted into cash quickly," he told leaders from more than a dozen Asian countries, as well as top officials from Europe, the United States and Canada, including Secretary of State Colin Powell.

"What happened on Dec. 26, 2004, was an unprecedented global catastrophe," Annan said. "It requires an unprecedented global response."

The pledged amount already is unprecedented for a natural disaster. The United Nations plans to spend the money in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, the Seychelles and as far away as Somalia, where some 200 people were killed. India and Thailand say they'll pay for recovery efforts in their countries themselves.

But as officials hailed the generous pledges, some humanitarian aid experts expressed fear that aid organizations would be overwhelmed by money and resources would be diverted from other humanitarian crises.

"The amount of money being raised is absolutely phenomenal. We've never seen anything like this," said John Mitchell, the head of the London-based Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action, an independent group that assesses the performance of governmental and private aid agencies.

Aid groups "aren't used to spending so much," he said. "They are not used to having that kind of money."

Mitchell said the international humanitarian-aid community must develop a five- to 10-year plan to coordinate and monitor the expenditure of tsunami aid funds.

U.S. military officials said they were spending about $6 million a day on ships, aircraft and other resources related to tsunami disaster relief.

The USNS Mercy, a 250-bed hospital ship with a staff of 275, has sailed from Hawaii bound for Southeast Asia, Navy officials said. The trip could take as long as 30 days.

Medical assistance is a crucial need, especially in Aceh, where thousands of people have broken bones and other injuries and where infection from exposure to contaminated seawater is becoming a major threat.

At the aid conference, Annan emphasized that some of the money in the initial six months would be used to help refugees get back on their feet. He cited the example of fishing families who lost homes and their livelihood—boats and nets—on the coasts of India, Sri Lanka and elsewhere.

"The best assistance we can offer them is an early opportunity to repair their boats and their fishing nets," Annan said. "These are very self-sufficient people who are used to living by their own hard work. If we give them quick financial support, building materials and other resources, they will make their own recovery."

The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization has asked for $10 million to replace or repair boats, engines and fishing gear in Sri Lanka as well as to repair harbors and docks.

Annan urged donors to honor their pledges through what's expected to be a five- to 10-year reconstruction. Aid officials worry that some donors may lose interest once the media spotlight has dimmed.

"We know from experience that such gaps can wipe out painstakingly achieved progress towards recovery," Annan said. "We trust that the world community will ... stay with us for the longer term."

Powell suggested that the United States might increase its pledge of $350 million if needed.

"We know full well that as the true dimension of this tragedy continues to emerge it may be necessary for us to make a larger contribution," Powell said.

The participants in the daylong summit discussed ways to improve regional and international cooperation in the relief effort and in emergency response for future disasters.

They issued a three-page declaration calling for stronger coordination of relief efforts, seeking money from the World Bank and other development banks for reconstruction and agreeing to establish an early-warning system in the region for tsunamis.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Moritsugu reported from Jakarta; Douglas from Washington. Pauline Lubens of the San Jose Mercury News in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, and Jonathan S. Landay and Joseph L. Galloway in Washington contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): TSUNAMI

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20040106 Donation Asia, 20050106 TSUNAMI relief

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