Blair: We must extend support to Africa

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair called yesterday for the moral and financial support given to the countries hit by the tsunami in Asia to be channelled into tackling the "man-made" disaster of poverty in Africa.

The Prime Minister acknowledged that the focus on the crisis in Asia could divert attention from Africa - Britain's top priority during its year chairing the G8 club of the world's leading industrial nations. But he was confident the British people would not suffer "compassion fatigue".

He told his monthly press conference that the tsunami tragedy was brought about "through the force of nature", but the "preventable disaster" of Africa was "through the failure of man". He said: "There is the equivalent of a man-made preventable tsunami every week in Africa."

Some four million people have died in Congo alone over recent years from war, famine and disease, while 6,500 people die every day in Africa from the Aids epidemic.

"It is important that we try to take some of the extraordinary spirit people have shown over the past two weeks and see how we use that in order to awaken people's feelings in respect of what can be prevented in terms of tragedy and catastrophe in our world, and that is really focused on Africa," he said.

"This could go one of two ways. It can either go: we've made this tremendous effort and that's as much effort as we can make. Or, alternatively, as I hope and believe it will, we can say, there is a different problem, which maybe doesn't have the same news impact as this terrible tragedy of the tsunami but none the less is, in its actual impact on the lives of people, of a devastating nature. We need the same generosity and spirit of solidarity to inform our attitude to that as well."

The Prime Minister defended his decision not to return early from his holiday in Egypt to handle Britain's response to the crisis, insisting that it was not taken on medical advice after his heart scare last year.

"The British people want their government not talking - because they know what they think about it - they want their government alongside them, doing absolutely everything we can - sending the equipment out there, making the finances available, ensuring that in every single way we match their sentiment with our action," he said.

Mr Blair siad that he believed the United Nations, not the G8, should lead the world's efforts and should work closely with a small group of countries to ensure effective action. He said there was "a general commitment" by world leaders to do what was necessary to help countries affected by the tsunami. "Every country feels itself in the same position," he said. "We don't want to get into some sort of daily bidding war about who's spending most money."

The Prime Minister warned that the number of British casualties was likely to increase. "Scores of British families are already coming to terms with the loss of loved ones, and many will fear the worst. As the hours and days go by, it is likely that many of those reported missing will also have died in those terrible minutes on Boxing Day," he said.

Describing the problems in Africa as "evil", Mr Blair said his personal faith in God was no more shaken by the horror of the tsunami than by the daily tragedies in Africa. "If your faith was to be rocked by a terrible natural disaster, it would be rocked also by what is happening - not always with the same visibility - in different parts of the world," he said.

Mr Blair also said that the Foreign Office had asked the authorities throughout the region to ensure that no British victims were buried in mass graves. The Government had offered to pay for the repatriation of all the bodies of British victims, he said.