US raises donation tenfold as death toll nears 150,000

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Amid international outcry and widespread dismay, the United States said last night that it was increasing 10-fold its aid contribution to help survivors of the Asian tsunami disaster as the United Nations announced that the death toll is approaching 150,000.

In a statement, President George Bush said he was increasing the amount of aid to $350m (£182m). The move followed widespread criticism that its initial offer of $35m was measly and inadequate. The statement said: "Initial findings of American assessment teams on the ground indicate that the need for financial and other assistance will steadily increase in the days and weeks ahead ... I am committing $350m to fund the US portion of the relief effort."

Mr Bush is also dispatching his Secretary of State, Colin Powell, and his brother Jeb Bush, the Governor of Florida, to Asia to prepare a report.

The UN's emergency relief co-ordinator, Jan Egeland, said: "What we see is that the figures may be approaching 150,000 dead. We will never ever have the absolute definite figure because there are many fishermen and villages which have just gone and we have no chance of finding out how many they were."

General Powell met Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, yesterday in New York to discuss plans to co-ordinate the aid effort with America leading a group of four "core" nations ­ Australia, India, Japan and the US ­ to work alongside the UN. It is not clear which organisation will take the lead and there have been allegations that Mr Bush is seeking to undermine UN efforts. Canada was added to the group yesterday.

The US decision makes it the largest donor. It had been condemned when the Bush administration said it would donate $35m. Mr Egeland said he believed the US's initial contribution was "stingy".

Some observers said the Bush administration's decision was not entirely altruistic. Many commentators said Washington had been missing an opportunity to improve its image in the Muslim world by making a sizeable contribution. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the US said it would give $15m, less than Republicans plan to spend on Mr Bush's inauguration celebrations.

Mr Bush has also been criticised for waiting a full 72 hours before breaking from his holiday at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, to publicly express his condolences to leaders of those countries affected. His aides have said he was waiting for the full extent of the disaster to emerge but that he had been speaking privately with various leaders.

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, said yesterday Mr Blair had been working to oversee British aid efforts to the tsunami-hit areas of Asia "morning and night" while on holiday. He said Mr Blair was "in control" regardless of whether he was "sitting in the chair ... in the Cabinet or whether he is sitting there and giving us instructions how to deal with it. He has been actively involved all through this process."

The Prime Minister, who takes over the G8 presidency today, faced demands to use his influence with Mr Bush to ensure America plays a full part in the relief effort and boosts its aid contribution.

Clare Short, the former international development minister, accused Mr Bush yesterday of trying to undermine the UN aid effort after he said the core group should co-ordinate the aid effort. But Labour MPs said Mr Blair was in a unique position to influence the President after his staunch support for Washington on Iraq.

In Egypt, Mr Blair had a telephone conversation with Mr Bush about the relief effort.

Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, said yesterday: "The Department for International Development has set aside £50m for the relief and reconstruction effort, and we will do all we can to ease the suffering of the millions left homeless, orphaned and vulnerable, and to help in the rebuilding of their communities."