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EU: Aid Effort To Tsunami-Hit Region Stepped Up

The European Union today announced that it is sending a high-level delegation to a crisis summit in the Indonesian capital Jakarta on 6 January. The meeting will bring together leaders from countries hit hardest by the catastrophe caused by massive tidal waves that followed an earthquake off the Indonesian coast on 26 December. Officials in Brussels said the president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, as well as the prime minister of Luxembourg, Jean-Claude Juncker, who heads the current EU presidency, will attend. Meanwhile, officials say, the total EU aid to the crisis-stricken region has reached 240 million euros.

Brussels, 3 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union today indicated it is seeking a key role in helping Asian nations hit by unprecedented tidal waves on 26 December recover from the catastrophe.

Gregor Kreuzhuber, a European Commission spokesman, said in Brussels that the president of the commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, will later this week be travelling to an emergency summit in the Indonesian capital Jakarta.

"The president has [last] night accepted an invitation from the Indonesian prime minister to attend a special Asian summit of leaders on the tsunami disaster on 6 January, meaning that President Barroso and the [EU's] development commissioner, Louis Michel, will attend this meeting, and this of course goes to show how seriously the European Commission is taking this crisis," Kreuzhuber said.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the prime minister of Luxembourg, which holds the current EU presidency, will also attend the summit. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell are also expected to attend.

The summit will take place a day ahead of a meeting of EU aid ministers in Brussels on 7 January. The ministers will discuss coordinating the EU's aid effort to the tsunami-affected region. Many EU member states lost hundreds of nationals holidaying in the area to the tsunamis. The EU has also emerged as a leading donor of funds for humanitarian aid and reconstruction.

Commission spokesman Kreuzhuber said today that the EU as a whole has already pledged 240 million euros ($324 million). He said the commission is "very confident that the [figure] will not be the final word of the EU."

Kreuzhuber particularly underlined the speed of the commission in releasing a 23 million-euro contribution in the early days of the crisis. He said that while the EU does not see donating funds "as a beauty contest," immediate availability of the funds to aid organizations in the region is a key requirement.

"In this context it is very important to know that [when] we talk about the 23 million euros, which have been committed -- and I deliberately don't say pledged, because these are commitments via ECHO [the humanitarian aid arm of the European Commission] -- this money is real money, ready-to-spend money, quality money, which can be immediately disbursed to people on the ground -- [and that] is not necessarily always the case," Kreuzhuber said.

The EU's aid commissioner, Louis Michel, currently touring countries hit by the tsunamis, stressed in Sri Lanka today that the EU has been the quickest contributor of aid money to Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and Indonesia.

Britain is at the forefront among EU nations in donating aid. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said today in London: "The British government has already committed 50 million pounds' [$95 million] worth of assistance, and the British people have shown enormous generosity and great humanity by giving more than 60 million pounds to date. With the help of the British military that aid is already getting to those who need it."

Altogether, governments and international organisations all over the world have pledged funds totalling some $2 billion. The United States rivals the EU with a contribution of $350 million.

Officials in Brussels said today that the EU has already dispatched aid experts to India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Thailand.

Development Commissioner Michel said today that EU personnel on the ground are "working closely with the United Nations and other donors to ensure the coordination of the humanitarian aid effort." He added that "it is essential that the United Nations is allowed to fulfil its key role as coordinator of international aid efforts in the field." This is seen as a veiled reference to comments by U.S. President George W. Bush, who last week said that the United States, Australia, Japan, and India intend to form a "core group" to lead relief efforts.

Officials in Brussels say flags at EU buildings have flown at half mast since last week and will continue to do so until at least 5 January. At midday on that day, staff at EU institutions will pause for a three-minute commemorative silence, expected also to be observed across EU member states.