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    US Raises Tsunami Disaster Aid Commitment to $35 Million

    The United States further increased its aid commitment to South and East Asian countries affected by Sunday's earthquake and tsunami disaster to $35 million. Secretary of State Colin Powell says the ultimate response by donor countries will run into billions of dollars.

    Assessment teams sent by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) are only now beginning to arrive in the stricken countries.

    But with the magnitude of the damage becoming clearer, the Bush administration Tuesday increased its initial aid commitment by $20 million to a total of $35 million.

    That does not include expenses incurred by the Pentagon in sending U.S. military aircraft to join in rescue and relief efforts.

    Announcement of the additional aid followed a meeting here involving Secretary of State Colin Powell, his deputy Richard Armitage, and USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios. Mr. Powell had earlier discussed the disaster response with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

    Victims in Thailand
    State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli stressed that the resources committed by the United States and other major donors are only the beginning of what will be a much larger, long-term assistance effort.

    "We'll be continuing to look at the situation and, based on our assessment, responding to what we think the needs are,” he said.  “The clear message, however, is that we're committed to helping. The United States government, I think, has responded quickly and in a meaningful way, and that will continue to be our approach as we go through what's going to be, unfortunately, a long and difficult period of assessment, relief, and reconstruction."

    Earlier in a television interview, Secretary of State Powell predicted that the international response to the disaster will be in the billions of dollars, and he rejected an assertion by U.N. Undersecretary for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland Monday that Western contributions had been stingy.

    Mr. Egeland later said his remark had been misinterpreted and not directed against any particular country.  Spokesman Ereli said the Bush administration had not taken the matter up with Mr. Egeland directly and does not wish to pursue it further.

    He said there is a common understanding among all concerned parties, including the United States and the U.N., that needs created by the disaster exceed the capacity of any one country or organization, and that its important for everyone to work together.

    Spokesman Ereli welcomed as an important gesture Thailand's offer allowing the U.S. military to use its Utapao naval air base as a regional hub to coordinate relief flights.

    The United States has committed 12 C-130 military cargo planes to the effort along with nine P-3 patrol planes for search and rescue missions.

    The earthquake and tsunami struck as thousand of American and other tourists were spending year-end holidays at resorts around the Indian Ocean.

    The State Department said Tuesday several hundred U.S. citizens remain unaccounted for, though they are not necessarily among the casualties. There are 12 confirmed American deaths.

    Spokesman Ereli said State Department consular officials had been sent to hard-hit resort areas in Thailand, Sri Lanka and Indonesia to help U.S. citizens who have lost passports or need other services.

    He said a special State Department hotline had gotten thousands of calls from worried Americans seeking information about missing friends and relatives, and that a large number of them have been located and found safe.

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