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UN's Annan Says Aid to Tsunami Victims is 'Race Against Time'

The global aid total for tsunami victims continues to grow, but United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan is pressing donor nations to respond quickly to immediate needs of survivors.

Emerging from a crisis summit in the Indonesian capital attended by leaders from around the world, Secretary General Annan noted the ever-growing level of aid commitments, which now total between $3 and $4 billion.

"For the moment, the world has come together and we are working together," he said. "The spirit in the conference and the spirit in the room in my discussions with the leaders who are here leads me to believe that we are responding, that there is solidarity and we are going to make a difference here."

Addressing leaders and dignitaries at the summit, however, Mr. Annan said that getting relief to tsunami survivors is a race against time, and that nations should fulfill aid commitments without delay.

Those commitments are taking several forms, as World Bank President James Wolfensohn explained to reporters at the summit.

"What we are looking at here is trying to relieve the financial burden of these countries that is imposed on them by this tragedy," he said. "And there are a number of ways of dealing with that: one is to give them money. Another is to give them concessional loans. And another is to relieve obligations that they would have to repay. Debt relief is going to be taken up by the Paris Club [of creditors] in coming days."

Several summit participants argued against focusing entirely on aid pledge totals. Secretary of State Colin Powell said that, just as important as a dollar figure is whether a pledge is ultimately fulfilled and where the money comes from. Mr. Powell said financial resources must not be drained from other worthy programs.

"An important point that came up during the course of the day was: let us make sure that in this unprecedented response to this crisis, let us not take from other accounts that are serving people in equally desperate need - whether it is in the DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo], or Liberia or somewhere else in the world," he said. "If you take from those accounts, you have to replenish them."

Colin Powell in Thailand
Mr. Powell, whose trip to the region began with a stop in Thailand, is scheduled to visit Sri Lanka Friday.

A declaration from the Jakarta gathering included a call for creating a tsunami early warning system for the Indian Ocean similar to the network that already exists in the Pacific. Scientists say the tsunami struck Indonesia just moments after the underwater earthquake that triggered it - too quickly for a warning system to have made a difference. But, they say such a system might have saved lives in Sri Lanka, India and other locations where the tsunami struck an hour or more later.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said a network of tsunami sensors would be a good first step to minimizing the loss of life if another earthquake strikes.

"The early warning system that we need is not only the instrument, the technology," he said. "But actually, we have to prepare more. We are talking about education. We are talking about coordination and information sharing."

Aid donations for tsunami victims are coming not only from governments and large institutions, but also from private groups, corporations and individuals across the globe - including in the United States. In Washington, Representative Joe Wilson, co-chairman of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian-American Affairs, says he has been awed by the response he has seen and the initiatives taken by ordinary Americans.

"It has been an indication of the genuine appreciation of the people of India, of the people of south Asia, by the people of the United States," he said. "There has been an outpouring [of support from Americans] - I know that I have seen it with my constituents. I have seen farmers offer grain to be sent overseas. I have had a retired doctor volunteer to go overseas. I have seen young people raise money at birthday parties."

Congressman Wilson, who represents a district in South Carolina, says the caucus is urging direct contributions to India's embassy in Washington, as well as to the American Chamber of Commerce in New Delhi.