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UN hails tsunami appeal response, seeks clarification on Indonesian restrictions

12 January 2005 Fresh from the "signal success" of a donors' meeting that funded more than three quarters of its flash appeal for the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami, the United Nations today sought clarification from Indonesia that new security restrictions would not hamper its operations in the most ravaged of all the dozen affected nations.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan hailed "the generous pledges and, more importantly, the firm commitments" of yesterday's meeting in Geneva, covering $756 million of the $977 million appeal. But in a statement issued today by his spokesman, he also stressed the need to follow through and stay the course until full rehabilitation.

"Given the unprecedented needs, the Secretary-General appeals to the international community to rapidly deliver on their pledges and urges all donors to sustain their support throughout the rehabilitation and reconstruction phase," the statement said. In past emergencies money actually received fell far below the billions pledged.

Welcoming non-traditional donors such as China and Russia, the Director of the Coordination and Response Division of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Kevin M. Kennedy, had nothing but praise for the meeting.

"The bottom line is, I think, that it was a very successful event and extraordinary generosity," he told a news briefing in New York in a daily update on the largest UN relief operation ever mounted for a natural disaster. "I don't believe that we have ever received this type of commitment so fast in response to any other emergency, whether it be a natural disaster or a complex emergency."

But Mr. Kennedy warned that restrictions imposed by the Indonesian authorities, such as the need to seek permission to move outside the Banda Aceh and Meulaboh areas and to be accompanied by military escort on the western side of Sumatra, must not hamper relief in the region that claimed more than two-thirds of the 160,000 deaths reported so far.

Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator Margareta Wahlstrm was in Banda Aceh today meeting with authorities to assess "what exactly it means and what impact it may have on our operations" in a province torn by decades of war with separatists, he said.

"We certainly well understand that there has been a conflict in Aceh for the last quarters of a century. However we are concerned that any requirements that would create any additional bottlenecks or delays or otherwise adversely affect our operations need to be viewed very carefully," he added.

"The UN does have a policy on military escorts, which is we will accept them, but that would be an exception as opposed to normal policy," he stated, noting that the world body had used them for years in Burundi, and without them would not have been able to deliver assistance due to security situation.

"But that would be an exception. We would obviously prefer not to operate with military escorts. If our security threat assessment indicates that it is not required we would not use them. But we remain flexible as required," he added, pointing out that many UN partners have policies of not using military escorts under any circumstances.

Mr. Kennedy said operations in Sumatra and Aceh continued to accelerate in response to the disaster, which beyond its death toll left more than half a million people injured and up to 5 million without basic services throughout the Indian Ocean basin.

But, he added, "we continue to wrestle with a couple of problems" in a remote area made even more inaccessible by the destruction of roads and bridges, and he stressed the need to speed up relief at the overburdened airports at Banda Aceh and Medan in Sumatra.

He noted that Denmark had offered additional ground handlers to supplement work already being done by teams from Australia and Singapore and that the UN World Food Programme (WFP) was contracting a fast ship to deliver supplies from Malaysia to Sumatra to reduce burden at the airports.

Looking to the future, the UN continued to spearhead efforts to set up tsunami early warning systems similar to one that now exists only in the volcano and earthquake-prone Pacific Rim region.

In his statement, Mr. Annan urged the international community to establish such a regional mechanism, which would have given coastal populations enough time to reach higher ground before the gigantic waves struck - hours after the initial earthquake in many of the devastated countries.

The UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) pledged to press ahead with such a system.

"If the disaster surveillance system that already covers the Pacific region had existed in the Indian Ocean, let me assure you that the tone of this international meeting would have been considerably different," ESCAP Executive Secretary Kim Hak-Su told a meeting of small island developing states in Mauritius, noting that his organization is committed to establishing a Task Force for Tsunami Management.

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