U.N. takes lead role in relief effort


JAKARTA, Indonesia - The United Nations' role in the massive Asian tsunami relief effort was broadened yesterday at an international conference where world leaders also announced a new round of aid pledges.

Early today, the death toll from the devastating earthquake and tsunamis that hit Asia and Africa soared to about 160,000 after Indonesia announced almost 20,000 new deaths. Health officials have warned that the death toll could jump even higher without a continual supply of aid, and world leaders struggled yesterday to figure out the best way to help victims - and to prevent such a catastrophe from happening again.

Many of the nations at the meeting, including most of the 13 harmed by last month's disaster, argued that the United Nations should take the top role in relief assistance. U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell conceded the lead coordination role to the United Nations but also warned that the international agency must act quickly to prove effective.

Describing a one-on-one meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Powell said, "We talked about the need for the U.N. agencies, if they're going to play that coordinating role, to get on the ground and start playing it."

Powell said a "core group" of nations that had been organized by the United States to provide relief - United States, India, Australia and Japan - would cease to function. But he also noted that the U.N. role would be "not the only lead role."

Although the United Nations has been eager to take charge, U.S. officials have had reservations in part due to concerns about the world body's ability to move quickly enough. Powell said that the United States military leadership in the region would continue organizing the deployment of American equipment and distribution of U.S. aid

Other militaries that are helping out in the region would continue to do the same, he said, adding that there will also continue to be "a lot" of direct country-to-country aid that doesn't involve the world body.

U.N. officials in Indonesia yesterday outlined plans to build four camps that would house 8,500 displaced people in hard-hit Banda Aceh, capital of Aceh province on the island of Sumatra. The first is due to open within a week, according to Michael Elmquist, head of U.N. humanitarian affairs in Indonesia, who said at least 20,000 people in the city have been made homeless by the natural disaster.

The camps would operate under international standards for relocation facilities, with purified drinking water, sanitation facilities and other provisions that would reduce risks of disease - a critical concern as corpses continue to float in rivers and massive amounts of debris and garbage remain on the streets.

Many bodies still have not been recovered and some are thought to be buried in heaps of washed-up wood and collapsed structures, where large monitor lizards can be seen these days slithering in and out. Fearful of disease, droves of residents have left for Medan and other Indonesian cities.

Roads to some of the previously inaccessible parts of the Sumatra coast are being cleared, allowing delivery of aid 12 days after the tsunami, said U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland in New York. A road is now passable from Medan to Meulaboh, where only 1,000 people of the town's population of 50,000 survived.

Egeland said it is still extremely difficult to determine how many people are dead or missing, and how many have fled to the hills to forage for food, or have come to about 200 improvised camps.

"All our resources are now trying to focus on all the people in this area, and there may be hundreds of thousands," he said in a news briefing at the United Nations.

In Jakarta, international aid pledges increased to about $4 billion at the hastily organized conference attended by senior officials from more than 25 countries and international groups. New pledges, officials said, included $466 million in aid from the European Union, as well as a $1 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.

The United States did not increase its $350 million pledge at the one-day event, but again signaled its concerns about the effectiveness of the relief effort in disclosing that it intends to ease a ban on providing spare aircraft parts to the Indonesian military.

The United States halted the supply of parts in 1999, after the Indonesia military used the workhorse cargo planes to attack rebels in East Timor.

The United States hopes that by supplying the parts to Jakarta's military, five more badly needed C-130H cargo planes can begin ferrying much-needed relief to tsunami survivors.

The Associated Press contributed to this article. The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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