WASHINGTON – President George W. Bush announced that a delegation of experts led by Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) will travel to Asia on Sunday to assess the need for further U.S. assistance.
The Bush administration also lent its support to a European-hosted international conference designed to accelerate pledges of assistance to victims of the Asian and African tsunamis and added the United Nations to a four-nation coalition organizing humanitarian relief.
"All Americans are shocked and saddened by the tragic loss of life and the destruction around the Indian Ocean," Bush said Thursday in a statement read by White House deputy press secretary Trent Duffy in Crawford, Texas, where the president is staying. "To coordinate this massive relief effort, first-hand assessments are needed by individuals on the ground."
To further assess the need for U.S. support, Bush said, the delegation of experts, including his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (search), will travel to the region. Duffy said including the president's brother, who has experience with extensive hurricane damage in Florida, "signifies the high level of importance that the president puts on this delegation."
Responding to persistent criticism that U.S. pledges have been slow to materialize and deliveries of aid not fast enough, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher (search) ticked off a string of relief flights and declared: "Any implication we are not leading the way is wrong."
"Our effort is strong and it is active," Boucher said at a State Department briefing in Washington that touched on the grisly efforts to find missing Americans and to identify victims.
Boucher said American diplomats, for instance, were visiting morgues in Indonesia as part of their search. The U.S. death toll was officially raised from 12 to 14, with seven dead in Thailand and seven in Sri Lanka.
Some 600 Americans who were listed as missing have been found, Boucher said, but several thousand had not been located four days after the disaster struck.
In Sri Lanka, Boucher said, Americans have been showing up at U.S. consular offices wearing bathing suits, with no money and no clothes.
Powell conferred by video hookup with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and the United Nations was added to the core group planning relief efforts. The others are the United States, Japan, India and Australia, which raised its pledge to $27 million (euro19.9 million), just $8 million (euro5.9 million) below the U.S. pledge.
Powell will meet with Annan at the United Nations on Friday.
Netherlands Ambassador Dirk Jan van den Berg said Thursday after meeting with Annan that he expected the European Commission to be part of the core group.
With the death toll rising above 117,000, European governments were taking soundings on holding an international donors conference Jan. 7. Boucher said, "The United States will participate at a senior level in whatever donors conference is held."
The coalition or core group set up Wednesday by Bush was scheduled to hold another conference call among top officials Thursday night.
Among the coalition's aims is trying to limit duplication of efforts.
Powell, visiting the Embassy of Thailand on Thursday to extend condolences, vowed that the administration would follow through on promises of substantial financial assistance.
"You can be sure that the president is determined to do what is necessary to deal with this challenge," he said. "We're working very closely with the international community."
On Capitol Hill, House International Relations Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde said he was drafting legislation to help victims and planned to introduce it early next year.
"The infrastructure of daily life is simply gone," said Hyde.
A congressional delegation headed by Rep. Jim Leach, a former U.S. foreign service officer, is scheduled to visit Thailand and Sri Lanka next week.
Pledges of U.S. assistance remained at $35 million (euro25.7 million), but parallel Pentagon spending was spiraling upward and could not be calculated quickly. The relief included the arrival of four C-130 cargo planes in Thailand loaded with food, water and sheltering material, and a large supply of rice and other food and assistance was due to arrive in Indonesia by New Year's Eve, a senior U.S. official said.
Several European countries far outdistanced the United States in pledges. They include Britain, $95 million (euro69.8 million); Sweden, $75.5 million (euro55.5 million); Spain, $68 million (euro50 million) and France, $57 million (euro41.9 million).
The World Bank announced it would make $250 million (euro183.8 million) available as an initial contribution for emergency reconstruction. The amount is for the next six months.
During his visit to the Thai embassy, Powell spoke anew of the death and destruction spawned by the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunamis. He told reporters that in the previous 24 hours, a half-dozen planes from the U.S. Agency for International Development had landed or were en route to nations hit by the tsunamis.
Powell also alluded to the roughly $35 million (euro25.7 million) in emergency aid already committed as "just a beginning."
"It's going to take a lot more," he said. "This is the time to make sure that we get a good needs assessment." The death toll from the quake and tsunamis has reached more than 114,000.
At the Embassy of Indonesia later, Powell wrote a message in a condolence book, expressing the support and sympathy of the American people. He said he had never seen such a tragedy and said that it was "time for us to join together in solidarity."