ROME – Aid teams rushed from Europe to southern Asian countries devastated by tidal waves (search) Sunday, warning that anything less than an urgent response would add many more deaths to a toll already in the thousands.
Pope John Paul II (search) urged the international community to help after an 8.9-magnitude earthquake off the Indonesian island of Sumatra — the largest in 40 years — triggered tidal waves up to 20 feet high that obliterated villages and seaside resorts in six countries across southern Asia. He said the "enormous tragedy" had saddened the Christmas holiday.
The International Red Cross (search) in Geneva appealed for donations of $6.7 million in cash, relief goods or services for the next six months.
"We are in for a big emergency disaster response, and we will be at it for many months to come," said David Alexander, international director of the British Red Cross.
Jasmine Whitbread, international director of the aid group Oxfam (search), warned that without swift action, more people could die in the aftermath. "The flood waters will have contaminated drinking water and food will be scarce," she said.
Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India were hardest hit — with thousands of deaths in each country and widespread destruction. Thailand, Malaysia and Bangladesh also reported deaths. The tsunami barreled nearly 3,000 miles across the ocean to Africa, where at least nine people were killed in Somalia, witnesses said.
Hours after news of the natural disaster hit Europe, the pope coupled his prayers for victims with an appeal to the international community to quickly act.
"The Christmas holiday has been saddened by the news that comes from Southeast Asia," John Paul told pilgrims and tourists in St. Peter's Square.
In Britain, three charities — Save the Children, World Vision and Christian Aid — were flying out teams to help workers already in Sri Lanka and India and sending money to region.
"For all the huge advances in the control of our lives through science and technology, an earthquake on this scale is truly humbling as well as profoundly tragic," said British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.
Save the Children said it was mobilizing response teams in South Asia and around the world and had started coordinating with local and international aid agencies to provide relief supplies in the hardest hit areas of Indonesia and Sri Lanka.
"We are urging the American public to assist us in this critical effort," said Rudy Von Bernuth, who is coordinating Save the Children's emergency response effort to the region.
Christian Aid said it feared tidal waves may have caused death and destruction in Myanmar, and the country's ruling junta could be suppressing news about casualties or damage.
"The possibility that (Myanmar) has been badly affected by this disaster is at the forefront of our fears at the moment," the group said.
The Italian Foreign Ministry's crisis unit was coordinating EU aid efforts. The 25-nation EU will deliver $4 million in emergency aid as a start, and Italy, Sweden, Germany, France and Britain were sending teams of technical experts and rescue workers.
"We are doing all we can to offer practical help and support," said Britain's International Development Secretary Hilary Benn.
In Austria, relief officials and charities such as Caritas and Volkshilfe made urgent appeals for cash donations.
"Once people are safe, they must be provided with meals, blankets and a roof over their heads," said Franz-Karl Prueller, head of Caritas' Austria operation.
The Dutch Red Cross was flying in blankets, tents and medicine, with priority going to Sri Lanka, said Dutch Foreign Ministry spokesman Esther van Damme.
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II said she was "deeply saddened to learn of the dreadful situation" and offered her sympathy, as did the Netherlands' Queen Beatrix and Russian President Vladimir Putin. French President Jacques Chirac sent Sri Lanka's president a letter expressing his sympathy.
The Greek Foreign Ministry said a C-130 cargo plane was ready to offer assistance, and the Kuwaiti government said it was sending $1 million in aid. Spain's Red Cross said it was designating nearly $50,000 in emergency funds.