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UN Optimistic About Meeting Tsunami Disaster Challenge

United Nations officials say the world is rising to the challenge of providing assistance to victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami. One-point-eight-million people are in need of food aid, a million of them in Indonesia.

One week after the tsunami struck, U.N. emergency relief coordinator Jan Egeland says he's optimistic the world community can meet the enormous challenge of providing aid to victims.

He says the $2 billion in pledges of assistance from more than 40 countries is being boosted by a huge outpouring of generosity from non-governmental organizations and private individuals.

"The international system is working," he said. "The hundreds of relief organizations now involved are taking coordination, and they are looking to the United Nations system for overall coordination, and the Red Cross federation for all of the coordination within the Red Cross and Red Crescent system."

Mr. Egeland said the United Nations, in cooperation with the U.S. military, has set up a world-wide command center at a U.S. air base in Thailand to coordinate what he called the biggest humanitarian effort ever. As the relief effort enters its second week, he said, officials have a "pretty good" overview of total needs.

Mr. Egeland said relief could reach 700,000 victims in Sri Lanka within the next three days. But he said the overall estimate of victims has risen to 1.8 million, most in Indonesia.

He pinpointed the west Indonesian island of Sumatra as the main area where logistical bottlenecks still prevent aid from reaching the neediest victims.

"The challenge in Indonesia is in a class of its own, still. We are, however, making big progress," he said. "Now 50 aid groups are operating in Banda Aceh, which was the epicenter of catastrophe, together with other communities on the northern Sumatra coast, and in Aceh."

Mr. Egeland praised humanitarian groups, such as Oxfam and Doctors Without Borders, that have launched massive operations to get water to people stranded in Banda Aceh.

He also noted the special contribution from countries, which have sent helicopters and heavy equipment to air drop aid to remote areas, where roads have been destroyed.

"Those helicopters now ferrying out relief to isolated villages on the Sumatra coast from the United States and from other partner countries, those helicopters are worth their weight in gold," he said.

U.N. officials say Secretary-General Kofi Annan will travel to the region later in the week. His first stop will be Jakarta for a meeting of several world leaders to discuss relief needs. He will then visit both Sumatra and Sri Lanka.

Mr. Annan told the U.S. ABC television program, This Week, Sunday, it could take up to 10 years for some countries to recover from the tsunami.

"It will differ from country to country, but my own sense is, you probably have five-to-10 years, and billions-of-dollars, because the devastation is enormous," he said.

Officials say Mr. Annan and other leaders will make a flash appeal for additional aid during their meeting in Jakarta this week. But the amount of that appeal is expected to be less than the $2 billion-plus already pledged.

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