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Powell Makes Trip to South Asia

Powell Makes Trip to South Asia

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MUSCAT, Oman (AP) -- The United States' top diplomat says he needs to take a careful firsthand look at the immediate humanitarian relief needs in countries ravaged by an undersea earthquake and tsunami wave, and defended the U.S. response so far as generous and appropriate.

Secretary of State Colin Powell and President Bush's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, were leading a U.S. delegation to Thailand, Indonesia and perhaps Sri Lanka, three of the countries ringing the Indian Ocean that saw the worst devastation and loss of life from the natural disasters a week ago.

Powell, who landed in Oman for refueling en route to the region, also plans to attend a meeting in Jakarta of Asian countries and international organizations to discuss tsunami assistance.

"I think it's important for me to go and make an on-the-ground assessment of the situation," Powell told reporters before leaving Washington on Sunday.

In Washington, meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, who is a physician, said Monday he too would travel to the region this week to assess "the next wave of threats" from diseases arising from poor sanitation and other health problems in the tsunami's aftermath.

Despite a burgeoning federal deficit and the cost of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Frist said it was critical for the United States to provide relief aid.

"We can afford it, as an American people and as a reflection of the oneness of humanity around the world," Frist told NBC's "Today" show.

With international pledges of $2 billion in aid so far -- including $350 million pledged by the United States -- Powell said the main problem now is not money but how to distribute it wisely and plan for long-term reconstruction.

"It's going to be a multiyear effort. I mean, whole villages and towns have been simply obliterated, gone," Powell said Sunday on CBS's "Face the Nation."

"President Bush has made it clear that the United States be at the forefront on this, as we have been on almost every similar disaster in recent history, or, frankly, in long-term history."

Addressing criticism the United States was slow to respond and contribute, Powell said it took several days to realize the full extent of the crisis. First reports indicated 10,000 dead, while the true figure was possibly 15 times that, Powell said.

Aid agencies have said the death count, now approaching 140,000, was expected to hit 150,000.

"We have nothing to be embarrassed about," Powell said on the NBC program "Meet the Press." "Our response scaled up as the scope of the disaster scaled up."

Rebuilding, including economic recovery for people who have lost everything, will take a great deal of outside help, Powell said. He did not rule out U.S. assistance beyond the $350 million already promised, even while defending that amount as appropriate for now. "It's the time now to step back and assess, see how to use the $350 million," Powell said on NBC.

The death toll continued to grow on Monday with the largest number of dead by far in Indonesia. Powell planned to spend several days there, and said he hoped to visit Aceh, the remote region that suffered the worst damage.

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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