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. World leaders gather for tsunami summit, aid pledges near 4 billion dollars
JAKARTA (AFP) Jan 05, 2005
World leaders gathered here for an emergency summit Thursday with the United Nations saying aid pledges since the Asian tsunami disaster were near four billion dollars as the International Monetary Fund offered one billion dollars in aid.

Nearly 150,000 people have been confirmed dead in the four hardest hit nations -- Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

"We are recording now pledges between three and four billion dollars," said Jan Egeland, the UN's emergency relief coordinator in New York. "It is indeed the world coming together in a manner we've never, ever seen before."

His announcement came after what he called "just incredible" pledges from Australia (764 million dollars) and Germany (668 million dollars).

He said it was barely possible to keep track of all the money coming in, and hoped the UN coordination of the relief would show "that we could and we did what we're put (here) to do by the community of nations."

International Monetary Fund director general Rodrigo Rato said separately: "The IMF stands ready to provide financial assistance to affected countries, in the first instance through our Emergency Natural Disaster Assistance facility.

"This financing, which could be on the order of one billion dollars US for the most affected countries, could be made available quickly and without an IMF program," Rato said.

In Japan, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda, the government spokesman, suggested Tokyo might also give more than 500 million dollars it has already promised, noting that damage was greater than first estimated.

Earlier US Secretary of State Colin Powell visiting Banda Aceh, capital of Indonesia's Aceh province, said Wednesday that the tsunamis had been more devastating than anything he had ever seen.

Powell toured Aceh a day ahead of the Jakarta summit with donations for victims of the December 26 disaster, which hit 11 Indian Ocean nations, mounting fast.

On a helicopter tour of Aceh where whole villages were swept away by the tsunami triggered by a powerful underwater earthquake off Sumatra, Powell said he gained a better grasp of the needs of countries hit by the tragedy.

"In the course of my career I've been in war and I've been through a number of hurricanes, tornadoes and other relief operations but I have never seen anything like this," the soldier turned diplomat told reporters.

"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 these waves," he said.

An array of US warships, planes and helicopters, along with 13,000 military personnel, have been sent to the Indian Ocean, with the effort credited with bringing food and water to many stricken people.

Australia announced a massive one billion Australian dollars (764 million aid package for Indonesia, while German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder pledged a whopping 500 million euros (668 million dollars) for tsunami-ravaged nations.

The twin pledges made Australia and Germany the world's top two contributors, well ahead of Japan and the United States, which have confirmed donations of 500 million dollars and 350 million dollars respectively.

"It will involve the largest single aid package in Australia's history, one billion Australian dollars," Prime Minister John Howard said in Jakarta.

Howard was due to attend the emergency one-day summit Thursday along with Powell, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and the leaders of China, the European Union and fellow Southeast Asian nations.

The tsunamis in the politically strategic region have been unprecedented in the number of nations affected, with 52 countries reporting dead or missing citizens.

Even deeply impoverished North Korea on Wednesday donated 150,000 dollars to the fast-growing pool of cash to feed, clothe and rehabilitate tsunami victims.

But survivors were not always receiving what they needed. The worst-hit district in south India told aid agencies to halt oversupply of cooked food, old clothes and water containers.

Sri Lanka, the second hardest-hit country with more than 30,000 dead, sounded a more upbeat note, with its disaster management chief saying the country was now on top of the crisis, despite up to 25 percent of those affected yet to be reached by relief workers.

"I think we're on top of the disaster," Tara de Mel, director of the government's Centre for National Operations, told AFP. "We at least know where the gaps are and what to do to fill those gaps."

Helicopters airdropped food and medical supplies to the eastern seaboard of the battered island.

In neighbouring India's remote Andaman and Nicobar islands, which were close to the subsea quake's epicentre, rescuers using heavy equipment shifted mountains of debris in an effort to find bodies.

The number of people killed in the tsunamis edged up Wednesday towards 146,000, with Indonesia confirming 94,200 deaths and 6,700 still missing, as decomposing bodies were still being found along ravaged shorelines.

Europe, which suffered hundreds if not thousands of fatalities in the disaster, fell silent for three minutes to pay tribute to the victims, with flags flying at half mast across the continent.

At least 2,510 foreigners died in Thailand when its packed beaches were submerged the day after Christmas by the giant waves.

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