The United States has expressed full confidence in the United Nations as the lead agency providing relief to victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami. As the death toll approached 125,000, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell met senior U.N. officials to pledge full support for disaster relief efforts.
A day after the United States and three other countries formed a core group to speed aid to tsunami victims, Secretary of State Powell went to U.N. headquarters to make clear that the group will be subordinate to the United Nations assistance effort. "We created the core group earlier in the week because we saw the need for a coordination mechanism to be created rather quickly, rested on countries in the region with assets, experience and capability that could be brought to bear right away. We wanted to make sure they were coordinated. But in due course we hope the core group will work itself out of business because we will have brought all international organizations into play under the overall supervision of the United Nations," he said.
The Secretary of State praised the world body's efforts, saying they were off to a good start.
Mr. Powell's visit to U.N. headquarters came hours after President Bush announced a ten-fold increase in the U.S. pledge of assistance for tsunami victims. U.N. officials say the $350 million U.S. pledge is the largest so far, bringing the overall total to more than $1.1 billion.
U.N. emergency relief coordinator Jan Egeland, who immediately after the tsunami hit criticized rich countries for being stingy with their aid donations, said he has never in his life seen an outpouring of generosity such as in the past week.
But he said the problem now is not money, but getting the aid to those who need it. "At the moment, we seem to have as our biggest challenge not the availability of funds nor the availability of supplies in the pipeline but the logistical constraints of getting it out to the people in northern Sumatra, in Aceh, in parts of Sri Lanka and even in parts of the Maldives. Many of the roads are gone, many airstrips are totally damaged, and that is why my work now actually is, number one getting logistical assets," he said.
Mr. Egeland said the tsunami death toll, now nearing 150,000, may never be fully known. "The vast majority of those are in Indonesian Aceh, which is the least assessed areas because of logistical constraints. It may therefore raise further. We will never ever have the absolute figure because there are many nameless fishermen and villages that have just gone and we have no chance of finding out how many they were," he said.
On day six of the disaster relief effort, Secretary-General Kofi Annan described the rush to deliver aid as a "race against time". After meeting Secretary of State Powell, Mr. Annan said air support promised by the United States and other military powers would play a critical role in reaching remote areas where infrastructure has been destroyed. "The situation is very difficult, particularly in Aceh and Sumatra, and we need to get access. This is why we talking about air capacity, that we need helicopters, that we need airlift, we need to have staging stations. And we are working on all of that trying to move as quickly as we can," he said.
Both the Secretary General and the Secretary of State emphasized that the aid effort must be long term to be effective. They stressed that further assistance will be needed in coming months, probably totaling several billion dollars.
Mr. Powell is due to leave for Asia Sunday for a first hand look at the tsunami devastation.