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Powell reaffirms U.S. commitment to tsunami relief

Secretary of state heads delegation on trip to southern Asia

Colin Powell was scheduled to arrive Monday in the Indian Ocean region.
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Colin Powell
Disasters (General)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Before leaving Sunday on a U.S. mission to tsunami-ravaged southern Asia, Secretary of State Colin Powell sharply rebutted criticism that the initial U.S. response to the disaster was slow and inadequate.

"I think that we have responded appropriately," he told CNN's "Late Edition," adding, "We're a little push-backy, I guess I can say, with respect to the claims that we didn't respond well. We did."

The United States has committed $350 million in relief funds, the largest contribution behind Japan's $500 million. (Full story)

The United Nations says a total of $2 billion has been promised.

U.S. military aid flights have delivered about 215 tons of relief supplies to the battered region, said Capt. Rodger Welch, a Navy operations officer in Hawaii. And a contingent of 200 Marine combat engineers based in Okinawa, Japan, will join the American task force already dispatched to the region to help distribute that aid, Welch said.

The death toll from the December 26 tsunamis stood at more than 155,000 on Sunday.

World leaders including Powell and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan will meet Thursday at a donor conference of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Thursday in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Joining Powell are Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother who helped oversee disaster relief following deadly hurricanes in his state; Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Mike Brown; Andrew Natsios, director of the U.S. Agency for International Development; and James Kelly, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.

They planned to fly to Bangkok Sunday, then to the Thai island of Phuket and on to Jakarta, Powell told CBS' "Face the Nation." He said the mission would "hopefully" stop in the destroyed Indonesian province of Aceh.

Before returning to the United States Friday, the delegation plans to stop in Sri Lanka, he said.

Bush told reporters before leaving Miami that the mission was to determine immediate and long-term relief and reconstruction needs -- "and also to show that our country really cares."

"I know the president has deep concerns about what has happened," said Bush, whose state was battered by four major hurricanes over the summer. "And the fact that I'm his brother, symbolically, may give some people a sense that the president really does care, as he does."

He said the hurricane damage his state sustained "pales by comparison to what happened in these countries." Florida is expected to receive about $10 billion in disaster aid by the time reconstruction efforts are complete, the governor said.

Bush said he would return to the United States in time for a 60th anniversary celebration for his parents, former president and first lady George and Barbara Bush, at the White House on Thursday.

U.N. and regional leaders have praised the planned mission and U.S. support for the region.

U.N. emergency relief coordinator Jan Egeland -- who sparked international debate last week when he called wealthy nations "stingy" with foreign aid in general -- told "Late Edition" the United States has been "ideal" in the way it has responded to the disaster.

"They have also provided military assets that we are reliant upon now, as we try to reach out to the most remote places in Sumatra and Aceh, which are the worst-hit of the areas," he said.

Last week the Bush administration faced some criticism at home and abroad when it at first promised $15 million and then raised that to $35 million. Critics also complained President Bush did not personally address the matter publicly until three days after the disaster struck and did not cut short his vacation in Crawford, Texas.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and member of the appropriations committee, said, "We should have been eagerly telling that part of the world, especially the Muslim part of that world, that we here in America are generous, are good people, and we are strongly committed to help them."

Powell rejected the charge.

"During the first 24 hours, I called every single foreign minister of the most affected nations," Powell told CNN. "Our ambassadors immediately began distributing emergency aid. We set up teams."

He added that Bush himself "called the heads of state" in the region and made clear the United States was responding.

Discussions were under way throughout the week to determine how much money to send, he said.

Powell said it would not be a good idea for Bush to visit the region himself right now.

"These are nations that are spending their time and attention now delivering relief to their citizens," Powell said. "A visit by the president of the United States, with all that entails, would be a diversion of their attention from providing support."

'Core group' defended

He also insisted that the U.S. creation of a "core group" -- the United States, India, Japan and Australia -- to respond to the crisis was not an effort to undermine the United Nations.

"What we have tried to do is use the core group ... as a way of getting started, recognizing that it would ultimately be subsumed into the efforts of the United Nations," he said.

Egeland praised the core group and said it was "helping" the United Nations.

Powell has said the United States may add to its $350 million pledge, and he told CNN the figure does not cover the total U.S. contribution.

"Our Department of Defense is spending tens of millions of dollars more as we dispatched two carrier groups, a regular big aircraft carrier group and a Marine amphibious group to the region," he said. "And private donations are significant."

But there are also questions about whether the United States will follow through with the promised contribution. A year ago, an earthquake destroyed the Iranian city of Bam, and the United States has not sent all the money it promised at the time.

"When we pledge an amount, we plan to deliver that amount," said Powell. "Sometimes there are difficulties with respect to the actual delivery of resources. In a place like Iran, that might be particularly difficult."

He added, "Not all of the money is spent immediately. ... The money fans out over a period of time in a sensible way, not all at once."

Annan said international pledges following disasters are regularly unfulfilled.

"This is the major problem we have. It's a classic problem we have with all these humanitarian issues," he told ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos."

Annan said he hopes that "given the fact that this is really an international crisis," with numerous countries having lost citizens, that the promised responses will come through.

It's not clear precisely where the promised U.S. funds will come from, but Powell rejected a suggestion from Leahy that at least some come from funds earmarked for Iraq reconstruction.

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