Tony Blair rejected calls yesterday to convene an emergency summit of the richest nations to co-ordinate a response to the tsunami disaster.
The Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, called on Mr Blair to show leadership and call an emergency meeting to discuss aid when Britain takes over the presidency of the G8 group of nations tomorrow.
But Mr Blair made it clear in a conversation with the Italian premier that he believed the UN and not the G8 should co-ordinate the relief effort.
A Downing Street spokesman said: "The Prime Minister said he will contact the other G8 members about assistance that we might be able to give to the United Nations. But we are confident G8 members will agree it is right that the UN should continue to take the lead role in co-ordinating the relief effort."
Mr Blair's support for the UN is in marked contrast to President George Bush's announcement yesterday that a core group of donor countries - the US, India, Australia and Japan - would co-ordinate the effort. The US belatedly added the UN to that group last night.
Mr Blair faced fresh demands to cut short his holiday in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, and return to London to "direct operations".
Nigel Evans MP, the Conservative vice-chairman, said Mr Blair should fly home immediately. "It would be far better, frankly, for him to be directing the operation from back here. This is the biggest natural disaster in the world for 40 years. The death toll is now heading towards 140,000, including a number of British people," he said.
"I would have thought Mr Blair should be following what other world leaders are doing and coming back to direct operations."
Mr Blair and his family flew to Egypt on Boxing Day, within hours of the tsunami striking. He was informed of the disaster before he left Britain, sources said.
Downing Street defended Mr Blair's decision not to cut short his holiday and said he had been in regular telephone contact with senior ministers about the crisis. He has also spoken to Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, and yesterday he met King Abdullah of Jordan.
"The Prime Minister is in regular contact with the Deputy Prime Minister, with Jack Straw and Hilary Benn, who are doing an excellent job," a Downing Street spokeswoman said. "The Government is working and the important thing is that work is going on to help the people facing this terrible crisis."
Mr Straw, the Foreign Secretary, also backed the Prime Minister's decision not to return and said he was "entitled to some rest".
Mr Berlusconi, one of Tony Blair's main European allies, had called on him to act swiftly to alleviate "the worst cataclysm of the modern era". He said Britain should convene the G8 meeting to "discuss the organisation of aid and the possible reduction of debt."
Yesterday, in an article in the Economist, Mr Blair highlighted the importance of Britain's presidency of the G8 in tackling world poverty.
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