NEW YORK - In what could prove to be the biggest relief operation in United Nations history, Secretary-General Kofi Annan said yesterday that the world organization had received pledges of $500 million to provide emergency assistance to victims of the South Asia earthquake and tsunamis.
More than 30 nations have pledged $250 million, including a U.S. promise of $35 million, which Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday was "only the beginning."
The other $250 million will come from the World Bank. Even so, Annan said the United Nations would issue an appeal for more emergency funds next week.
Because of the magnitude of the catastrophe, he said, coordination is vital to make sure that the right supplies reach the areas hit hardest by the tsunamis. The World Health Organization estimates that 5 million people need some assistance as a result of the disaster. About a third are children.
"This is an unprecedented global catastrophe and it requires an unprecedented global response," Annan said during a news conference after returning to New York early from a vacation. "No one agency or one country can deal with it alone."
After the United States announced an initial pledge of $15 million earlier in the week, U.N. relief coordinator Jan Egeland criticized Western countries for their "stingy" response to the disaster.
President Bush dismissed that criticism as "ill informed," but the administration raised its pledge to $35 million.
Annan said he was satisfied with the donations by the world's governments.
"In this particular instance, the response has been very good," he said. "They have not only made pledges, they have indicated they would make more."
He also welcomed Bush's announcement Wednesday that a four-nation coalition led by the United States would coordinate efforts to transport relief supplies to South Asia.
"The core group will support the U.N. effort," Annan said, referring to the coalition, which includes Japan, Australia and India. "I think it's a good thing that we have a real international effort."
Aid has been slow to reach parts of Indonesia and Sri Lanka, where the devastation is greatest. Part of the delay has been attributed to the difficulties of getting relief supplies to the affected regions.
The tsunamis' surging waters washed away many roads, and both nations have limited capacity for handling large amounts of airborne cargo in the hardest-hit areas.
But trying to assess needs in 12 countries, stretching across nearly 4,000 miles and six time zones, also poses a daunting challenge to the hundreds of public and private relief agencies attempting to provide drinking water, food, shelter and medical supplies.
"It's important to do it fast, but it's probably more important to do it right," said Thomas Tighe, a former Peace Corps official who is now president of Direct Relief International, which provides medical supplies to developing countries.
Egeland, the U.N. official in charge of coordinating humanitarian assistance, said he expects this to be the biggest mobilization of relief supplies in U.N. history, surpassing the 1998 effort in the wake of Hurricane Mitch, which devastated Central America.
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.
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