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Tsunami 'core group' of relief nations disbanded

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By Arshad Mohammed

JAKARTA, Jan 6 (Reuters) - An effort by the United States, Japan, India and Australia to coordinate tsunami relief will be disbanded and folded into the broader U.N.-led operations, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said on Thursday.

The group's creation was announced by U.S. President George W. Bush just eight days ago as he tried to dispel criticism that the initial U.S. response to the catastrophe was slow. Some analysts saw it as an effort to appear engaged.

But U.S. officials said the group had already served its purpose by jump-starting aid efforts to devastated regions following the Dec. 26 tsunami that barrelled into 13 countries around the Indian Ocean and killed some 150,000.

"The core group helped to catalyse the international response," Powell told a tsunami relief conference in Jakarta according to a prepared text released by the State Department. "Having served its purpose, it will ... now fold itself into the broader coordination efforts of the United Nations."

Other diplomats have suggested there was concern that if the huge relief effort breaks down, the United States would prefer not to be in the lead role where it might get the lion's share of blame.

In the wake of the unprecedented disaster, Bush was criticised for taking three days to speak publicly about it and for the initial U.S. financial aid of $15 million.

The U.S. pledge has since been raised to $350 million -- a figure Powell said would "in all likelihood" go up as the needs become clearer. Unlike Germany and Australia, however, he did not unveil any new U.S. money ahead of the Jakarta conference.

Washington has also sent an aircraft carrier and other military ships and planes to the region to ferry food and water to tsunami survivors.

A State Department official said the U.S. military in the region would "coordinate closely" with the United Nations on providing airlift and other logistical help for the relief work but would not be under U.N. command.

The core group has held daily phone meetings with U.N. officials but at the time it was formed analysts wondered whether its work might conflict with the United Nations, which is coordinating aid from some 40 countries.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in Jakarta for the aid conference, expressed gratitude for its work and insisted on the primacy of the United Nations in organising relief work.

"The U.N. is in the lead with regard to the coordination of the humanitarian effort," Annan said, adding that the military contributions by the United States, and relief efforts by India, Singapore and Australia, had been invaluable in the early days after the disaster.

"Without that essential contribution it would have been extremely difficult for us to get to those in need," he added.

Aldo Borgu, an analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra , said the idea of a core group quickly outlived its usefulness.

"I think it was a fairly knee-jerk reaction, that the industrialised world should be seen to be helping," Borgu said. "Subsequently it has become redundant."

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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