JAKARTA, Indonesia - Australia promised $764 million - the largest government pledge - to the tsunami relief effort, topping a $674 million German aid package on the eve of a crucial donors conference today. World leaders were competing to head the donors list as summit participants got firsthand looks at the apocalyptic landscapes carved out by South Asia's tsunamis.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, a battle-hardened veteran of the Vietnam War, was aghast at the devastation on Indonesia's Sumatra island. "I've never seen anything like this," he said.
India has politely turned down the unprecedented offers of money and military might, but many Indonesians appeared to be putting pride aside. During Powell's visit, survivors expressed gratitude for American aid.
"Thank God, he's come. Thank God," said Mohamed Bachid Madjid, peering from a bridge into the Aceh River, where two bloated corpses floated among the debris.
The fresh outpouring of generosity appeared at times to be almost like a bidding war and raised questions about whether rich nations were using the disaster to jockey for influence on the world stage and with hard-hit Indonesia, which has a wealth of natural resources.
Louis Michel, the European commissioner for development and humanitarian aid, urged donors not to engage in one-upsmanship.
"We have to be careful and not participate in a beauty contest where we are competing to give higher figures," he said.
But United Nations humanitarian chief Jan Egeland, the man who angered Washington by complaining that wealthy nations were often "stingy," said Tuesday: "I'd rather see competitive compassion than no compassion."
Michel also said too many countries were making pledges that may not be honored.
A little over a year ago, donors promised Iran more than $1 billion in relief after an earthquake killed 26,000 people there. Iranian officials say only $17.5 million has been sent.
The twin pledges yesterday by Australia and Germany pushed the total relief sum above $3 billion for the 11 countries hit by killer waves whipped up by a major earthquake Dec. 26.
Egeland called the pledges "phenomenal" and said the offers were so large that his staff members had to ask donors to repeat what they said.
Australia initially set its aid pledge at $810 million, but that included funds earmarked for Indonesia before the tsunamis. Australian officials said new money promised amounts to $764 million. Most of the pledge is for neighboring Indonesia.
"Out of the appalling tragedy of the tsunami has emerged an opportunity to build a new future," said Australian Prime Minister John Howard. Rocky ties between Australia and Indonesia have improved steadily since the nations came together after the Bali nightclub bombings in 2002 that killed 202 people, including 88 Australians.
The United States was the first to raise the stakes dramatically in the aid race by pledging $350 million Friday; it now lies fourth on the donor list and has sent in two aircraft carrier groups and thousands of troops. Japan promised a $500 million package last week.
The donors conference was focusing on how best to allocate the billions of dollars in aid in the wake of a disaster that killed more than 139,000 people, wiped out villages and infrastructure, and left millions homeless and threatened with disease. Leaders also were to discuss a warning system to prevent big death tolls from future tsunamis.
The World Health Organization said it urgently needs $60 million to provide safe drinking water, sanitation, shelter, food, medical and other supplies to prevent disease outbreaks that would put another 150,000 people at "extreme risk" of dying. The United Nations said camps for up to 500,000 tsunami refugees will be built on Sumatra.
As they toured overflowing hospitals in Banda Aceh yesterday, UNICEF director Carol Bellamy and WHO Director-General Dr. Lee Jong-wook saw the health problems close up: gangrenous wounds forcing surgeons to amputate, scores of children with diarrhea, pneumonia cases caused by inhaling dirty water.
Powell was one of the first leaders to arrive in Indonesia ahead of the conference. From an altitude of a few hundred yards, he and his entourage saw not a tree or building standing along the coast. City block after city block in Banda Aceh had been swept clean. A large ship lay on its side, half submerged in water and mud.
"I cannot begin to imagine the horror that went through the families and all of the people who heard this noise coming and then had their lives snuffed out by this wave," Powell said. "The power of the wave ... to destroy everything in its path is amazing."
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Powell, Howard, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi were among the officials expected in Jakarta for the tsunami relief summit.
Even impoverished North Korea has chipped in with a pledge of $150,000. Convicts in Malaysia were donating money earned doing prison work, and war-torn Afghanistan planned to send doctors.
Some refugees on the eastern coast of Sri Lanka began returning home after 10 days in limbo. They went back however they could - on foot, by bicycle or in motorized rickshaw taxis.
But most of the survivors from Nasuvantivu village found that they had nothing to go back to.
Subramaniam Nadarasa's once-solid brick home, set among coconut trees on the sandy beach, was stripped to its cement floor. Blocks of the blue-painted walls lay broken. A pot and his crumpled blue bicycle were all that remained of his possessions.
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