Donor nations must deliver on their pledges, says Annan

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World leaders today pledged to work together to help tsunami-shattered regions recover from the worst natural disaster in living memory, but warned it was a race against time to get aid to survivors before they succumb to disease.

Getting aid to millions of tsunami victims is a race against time and nations must come forward immediately with the aid they've promised, The UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said today at an emergency summit.

World leaders have gathered in Indonesia, hardest hit by the 26 December disaster, to figure out the best way to speed aid to victims. While nearly US$4 billion (euro3 billion) has been pledged worldwide, the United Nations has warned some of the promises might not be honored as in previous disasters.

Annan urged nations to channel US$1.7 billion (euro1.3 billion) of the funds to the United Nations for relief, including US$977 million (euro740 million) for emergency aid.

"Whole communities have disappeared," Annan said, calling for the establishment of a tsunami warning system in the Indian Ocean. "Millions in Asia, Africa, and even in far away countries, are suffering unimaginable trauma and psychological wounds that will take a long time to heal. Families have been torn apart.

"The disaster was so brutal, so quick, and so far-reaching, that we are still struggling to comprehend it," Annan added, stressing the need for donor "pledges to be converted into cash quickly ... It is a race against time."

The U.N. chief said the number killed across Asia and Africa would likely exceed 150,000, but the exact figure would never be known. The World Health Organization warned the toll could double if aid doesn't reach survivors soon.

"As many as 150,000 people are at extreme risk if a major disease outbreak in the affected areas occurs," said WHO Director-General Dr. Lee Jong-wook.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono described the calamity as "the most destructive natural disaster in living memory."

"Our response to this unprecedented catastrophe must be equally unprecedented," he said at the one-day summit, attended by leaders including Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.

A tsunami warning system - like the one already in place in the Pacific - should be established in the Indian Ocean as quickly as possible, he said: "Prevention and early warning systems must become a priority."

Japan planned to offer technical expertise to set up the warning system. The country has one of the world's most advanced networks of fiber-optic sensors, which can warn of deadly tsunami within two minutes of a quake.

"No longer must we leave ourselves so vulnerable and so exposed," Thai Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathaim said. "It is well-proven that 10 minutes advance warning can save hundreds of lives."

An early draft of the closing declaration of Thursday's meeting called for the warning system to be set up and for the United Nations to take the lead in coordinating the relief effort.

Powell told delegates the United States would let the United Nations coordinate relief work. Soon after the tsunami struck, Washington said it and a few other countries would lead the aid effort.

Pledges of aid rushed in on the eve of Thursday's conference.

Australia raised its total aid pledge to US$810 million (euro610 million), the largest government contribution, topping Germany's euro500 million (US$660 million), followed by Japan and the United States.

The United States was the first to raise the aid race stakes last week by pledging US$350 million (euro263 million). It's now fourth on the donor list and has sent in an aircraft carrier group and thousands of troops. Japan promised $500 million (euro376.7 million) last week.

On the sidelines of the meeting, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said the European Union will immediately donate euro100 million (US$132 million) for tsunami relief and look at setting up a euro1 billion (US$1.32 billion) loan for affected nations.

Barroso said he also would ask the European Parliament to approve another euro350 million (US$461 million) in aid for longer term reconstruction of devastated countries.

"I think the European Parliament is ready to be very generous," he said on the sidelines of the international donor summit in Jakarta.

But there were fears much of the pledged money would not materialize.

Just over a year ago, donors promised Iran more than US$1 billion in relief after an earthquake killed 26,000 people there. Iranian officials say only US$17.5 million has been sent.

Hundreds of heavily armed police and troops ringed the plush Jakarta conference center hosting the summit.

Security already is tight throughout Jakarta, where al-Qaida-linked terrorists have been blamed for blowing up a hotel and the Australian embassy recently, as well as the 2002 Bali bombings, which killed 202 people, mostly foreigners.