Blair promises to step up contribution ahead of summit

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Indy Politics

As world leaders gathered in Indonesia for the first global summit on the tsunami disaster, Tony Blair promised that Britain would give "hundreds of millions of pounds" to the victims.

As world leaders gathered in Indonesia for the first global summit on the tsunami disaster, Tony Blair promised that Britain would give "hundreds of millions of pounds" to the victims.

Mr Blair made the pledge as he defended his decision not to cut his holiday short after the disaster. Britain, Germany and Australia have now substantially increased promises of aid to states devastated by the tsunami. Germany has now offered $674m, (£357m) while Britain says its aid will expand hugely over the next few weeks.

Australia is now the biggest contributor, having pledged $765m (£406m) to Indonesia, its neighbour. The one-day conference in Jakarta will be attended by top officials from donor countries, and global humanitarian groups, including Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, and Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary.

Altogether more than $3bn (£1.6bn)has been promised so far. A major effort is now being made to distribute the aid as world leaders prepare to meet in Indonesia today.

Only Canada has declared a unilateral moratorium on debt repayments, but Japan says it also is willing to do so. Other countries, including the US, have indicated they would support the idea.

General Powell, who visited the Indonesian province of Aceh yesterday, will attend today's conference. He said the devastation he saw there was unlike anything he had seen before. The summit, which will focus on co-ordinating the aid and recovery, is also likely agree on a tsunami alert system for the Indian Ocean region.

In Britain, ministers are still coming under heavy fire for lagging behind the public in their willingness to contribute towards the aid effort. Charities have so far raised £89m, compared with a pledge of £50m from the Government.

But in his first interview since returning from his week-long Christmas break in Egypt, Mr Blair said: "My estimate is that we will need to spend from government several hundred million pounds. So we will more than match the generosity of the British people."

The Prime Minister told Radio 4's Today programme he had not returned from Egypt because he believed "the important thing was to get the job done".

He said: "I don't think this is a situation in which the British people need me to articulate what they feel. I think they feel - as we all do - shock, horror, and absolute solidarity with those people who have lost their lives and those countries that now need to be rebuilt. I thought, and think, the important thing is to get behind that sense and that mood with action."

He said only £7m of the £50m pledged for aid and reconstruction had been spent so far. Much larger sums would have to be spent, he said, once the needs of the countries hit by the tidal wave had been assessed.

Mr Blair sidestepped suggestions he had been under doctors' orders to rest. "I think there was also a suggestion I went away to have plastic surgery. Unfortunately, as you can see, I am looking the same as I always did."

He said he had held talks with world leaders by telephone on the crisis and been in close contact with ministers over Britain's response. "Throughout the entirety of the time, I have been intimately involved with all the decisions that have been taken and I'm doing now pretty much what I was doing then."

Asked if he had been just as involved as Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, who this week announced a debt-relief initiative for the stricken countries, he said: "This is precisely what I have been doing. I think the best thing I can do is to make sure the procedures are in place to handle the various aspects of this - and I think the ministers concerned have done a superb job on this - and the second thing is to be in contact with the leaders of other countries and the secretary general of the UN."

Tom Brake, the Liberal Democrat international development spokesman, called on the Government to guarantee that any extra money found for the relief effort would not be plundered from other aid projects. He said the £50m committed so far had already exhausted the contingency reserves of the Department for International Development (DfID). He said: "Many poorer countries suffered badly when DfID curtailed valuable aid projects to fund the reconstruction of Iraq. Gordon Brown ... should guarantee that the poorest inhabitants in places like Peru and Brazil will not pay for the reconstruction of Sri Lanka or Indonesia."