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Bush pledges $350m; relief efforts crawling

MEDAN, Indonesia -- President Bush announced a tenfold increase in US aid to tsunami victims yesterday, pledging $350 million, as relief supplies poured into Asia from around the world.

But tons of food, medicine, and other aid -- meant for the coast of Sumatra, one of the most devastated areas -- piled up in warehouses in the region. Damaged infrastructure and government bureaucracy created a life-threatening bottleneck and frustrated relief organizations.

As a United Nations official estimated the number of dead from the tsunami was approaching 150,000, Bush said the US allocation could grow as the ''full effects of this terrible tragedy become clearer." The United States originally pledged $4 million, then raised it to $15 million, and then $35 million -- an amount that critics of the administration said fell short.

''Our thoughts and prayers are with all those affected by this epic disaster," Bush said in a statement from Crawford, Texas, where he is staying at his ranch. He said he raised the pledge after receiving assessments from Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Andrew Natsios, who heads the US Agency for International Development, or USAID.

UN relief coordinator Jan Egeland, who criticized Western nations this week for being ''stingy," praised the new US pledge. ''I have never seen such an outpouring of international assistance in any natural disaster ever," Egeland said, who gave the latest tally of fatalities yesterday.

Powell said Bush's decision was not in response to criticism. ''We had to wait to see what those needs were," Powell said after discussing the humanitarian situation with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in New York.

Britain has pledged $95 million, Sweden $75.5 million, and France $57 million. India, Japan, and Australia have also joined the United States in a ''core group" that will support UN relief efforts.

Annan said the destruction was so extensive in Indonesia, the hardest-hit country with more than 80,000 deaths, that emergency shipments of drinking water, food, and medical supplies were not getting through to the places where they are needed.

''The situation is very difficult," Annan said. ''We need helicopters. We need to have an airlift. We need to have staging stations. And we're working on all of that."

Sumatra bore some of the worst damage as the tsunami ravaged about 3,000 miles of African and Asian coastline Sunday.

The bulk of the aid for North Sumatra is arriving in the regional hub of Medan, on the eastern coast. Humanitarian flights to the northern town of Banda Aceh, near the epicenter of the earthquake, began three days after the disaster struck. And a US military cargo jet delivered blankets, medicine, and thousands of body bags to that town yesterday.

But damaged airports around the region, nearly impassable roads, and a lack of coordination by the Indonesian military and aid groups have hindered the deliveries, and aid has yet to reach more-isolated areas. Meanwhile, the supplies keep accumulating in a warehouse near Medan's airport.

''Hundreds of tons, it keeps coming in," said Rizal Nordin, governor of North Sumatra Province, told the Associated Press. He blamed the backlog on an initial ''lack of coordination" between aid groups and the government that was slowly improving.

Relief workers say they are particular concerned about the fishing town of Meulaboh, on the west coast of Aceh Province. Of Indonesia's deaths, some 15,000 or more are thought to have occurred in and around Meulaboh. Countless more there linger on the edge of starvation, aid groups say.

On Thursday, four days after the tsunami hit, a German pilot and his wife, an Indonesian businesswoman, made what is believed to be the first aid delivery to Meulaboh after a daring landing on what is left of the airport runway there. The couple and their small Cessna Caravan aircraft were met with joy -- but also military bureaucracy.

Local soldiers in charge would not approve their requests for permission to return with more supplies, according to a journalist with the Sunday Times of London who was aboard the flight. Authorities feared releasing the aid without specific orders.

The plight of one nongovernmental organization illustrates the challenges aid groups are facing.

Cameron Noble, a 36-year-old Indonesia coordinator for Peace Winds of Japan, based in Tokyo, has been trying since Tuesday to deliver food, water, and antibiotics to Meulaboh from Medan. But he has been unable to find a suitable aircraft to deliver it.

''It's very frustrating because we came here to do a job. and organizing this aid and buying and putting it together is just a small part of it," Noble said. ''It's the sheer scale of the disaster. There are people pouring in aid, but there are just not enough helicopters," planes, or space on the runways, he said.

Since arriving here on Monday, Noble has slowly lost hope that the Indonesian military would lend an aircraft and instead shifted his attention to chartering a private plane to make the trip to Meulaboh. Yesterday, he haggled for a plane at the counter of P. T. SMAC, one of the best-known charter airlines at Medan's airport, only to be told by the company's general manager that a plane big enough to carry his agency's load would be too big to land on Meulaboh's ruined runway.

Noble's group was told it could fly into an airport 37 miles north of the town, but aid workers would have to find their own transport the rest of the way to Meulaboh -- and there was no guarantee of getting a flight back. In addition, all the planes were rented until Monday.

''It's a big headache," Soenarno Mintorahardjo, general manager of SMAC, said of the crowds at his door, adding that he had tripled the number of flights he had to the region.

Noble then tried an air-transport service called Treveria, but found the company's office dark and shuttered. A man in the office next door suggested Noble try another company, Pelita. But Pelita did not have any planes, either, only a helicopter that rented for $3,500 an hour.

Noble, who had earlier considered other routes -- even renting a plane in Singapore or Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital -- declined to take the helicopter because of the cost.

He was not the only one trying to figure out how to reach Sumatra's western coast. At the SMAC office, he met 26-year-old Rudi Kurniawan, who was trying to coax his way onto a flight so that he could search for his father, mother, and sister in Meulaboh.

Kurniawan, who had heard no word from his family since the tsunami, was willing to try to make the journey by motorbike, or fly to the nearest unscathed airport and walk the remaining way.

''Were you successful?" he asked Noble's group about chartering the plane, a glimmer of hope in his voice. ''I want to find my father." Afterward, Noble said he was considering whether to invite the boy if his aid group eventually procured a plane -- mindful that one more body equals less room for supplies -- and said he would think about it.

The army had been trying to help, Noble said, describing piles of medicine and food taller than a man organized at the military's warehouse at the airport. Still, Noble said, distribution was too slow and he feared that when it finally arrived in some areas, it could be too late.

''They've got a lot of stuff in the warehouse at the military base, but it doesn't seem to be moving very quickly to the people," he said.

As the day faded into night in Medan, and restaurants lit up for muted New Year's festivities, Noble received a piece of good news: He had been invited on a SMAC flight chartered by a Japanese newspaper, leaving at 6 a.m. today. But he could only take half of the aid supplies he had brought, so he pledged to keep up the search for a second plane.

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.

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