Secretary-General Kofi Annan said yesterday that the United Nations had received pledges of $500 million to pay for emergency assistance to victims of the south Asia earthquake...

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UNITED NATIONS — Secretary-General Kofi Annan said yesterday that the United Nations had received pledges of $500 million to pay for emergency assistance to victims of the south Asia earthquake and tsunami.

More than 30 nations have pledged $250 million, including a U.S. promise of $35 million, which Secretary of State Colin Powell said yesterday was “only the beginning.”

The other $250 million will come from the World Bank. Even so, Annan said the United Nations would issue an appeal for more emergency funds next week.

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Because of the magnitude of the catastrophe, he said coordination is vital to make sure that the right supplies reach the areas hit hardest. The World Health Organization estimates that 5 million people need some assistance; about a third are children.

“This is an unprecedented global catastrophe, and it requires an unprecedented global response,” Annan said at a news conference in New York. “No one agency or one country can deal with it alone.”

President Bush announced yesterday that a delegation of experts led by Powell will travel to Asia on Sunday to assess the need for further U.S. assistance. The delegation will include the president’s brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has experience with extensive hurricane damage in that state.

The Bush administration also lent its support to a European-hosted international conference designed to accelerate pledges of assistance to victims of the tsunami and added the United Nations to a four-nation coalition organizing humanitarian relief.

The administration, whose relations with Annan have been tense since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, has pledged to work closely with the world body and was open to letting other countries join its “core group” of aid coordinators, U.N. officials said. Annan held a videoconference yesterday with envoys from the four countries — Australia, India, Japan and the United States — with Powell representing Washington, they said.

Meanwhile, the White House continued its campaign to convince both global and domestic skeptics of U.S. generosity.

“In this hour of critical need, America is joining with other nations and international organizations to do everything possible to provide assistance and relief to the victims and their families,” Bush said in a statement read by White House deputy press secretary Trent Duffy in Crawford, Texas, where the president is staying.

Responding to persistent criticism that U.S. pledges have been slow to materialize and deliveries of aid not fast enough, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher ticked off a string of relief flights.

Pledges of U.S. assistance remained at $35 million, but parallel Pentagon spending was spiraling upward and could not be calculated quickly. The relief included the arrival of four C-130 cargo planes in Thailand loaded with food, water and sheltering material, and a large supply of rice and other food and assistance was due to arrive in Indonesia today, a senior U.S. official said.

Several European countries far outdistanced the United States in pledges. They include Britain, $95 million; Sweden, $75.5 million; Spain, $68 million; and France, $57 million.

And people around the world opened their wallets to give millions of dollars to the tsunami victims, jamming phone lines and Web sites and, in some instances, outpacing their own governments.

Britain’s Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) said it had collected the equivalent of $39 million less than a day after launching an appeal on behalf of 12 top British charities.

The American Red Cross said that as of noon Wednesday it had collected $18 million.

Finns lined up in the cold in Helsinki to contribute. The country of just 5 million people quickly raised $4 million. Italians raised $17 million by sending special text messages on their mobile phones.

Microsoft and its employees are donating $5 million. The company is giving $2 million immediately to relief organizations and an additional $1.5 million in cash to match the $1.5 million Microsoft employees are expected to donate. collected $4.8 million in donations from online shoppers.

In many cases the flood of cash from the public outstripped that provided by their governments. Britain raised its official donation to $95 million after public donations surpasses its first pledge of $28 million

One of the donors was Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, who made a “substantial” pledge from her own funds, Buckingham Palace said.

After the United States announced an initial pledge of $15 million earlier in the week, U.N. relief coordinator Jan Egeland criticized Western countries for their “stingy” response to the disaster. President Bush dismissed that criticism as “ill informed,” but the administration raised its pledge to $35 million.

Annan said he was satisfied with the donations by the world’s governments.

“In this particular instance, the response has been very good,” he said. “They have not only made pledges, they have indicated they would make more.”

Aid has been slow to reach parts of Indonesia and Sri Lanka, where the devastation is greatest. Part of the delay has been attributed to the difficulties of getting relief supplies to the affected regions. The tsunami washed away many roads, and both nations have limited capacity for handling large amounts of airborne cargo in the hardest-hit areas.

But trying to assess needs in 12 countries, stretching across nearly 4,000 miles and six time zones, also poses a daunting challenge for relief agencies attempting to provide drinking water, food, shelter and medical supplies.

“It’s important to do it fast, but it’s probably more important to do it right,” said Thomas Tighe, a former Peace Corps official who is now president of Direct Relief International, which provides medical supplies

Relief agencies and government officials say the best way for individuals to help the aid effort is by making a contribution to a charity working in the region.

“We encourage people to send money because it’s more cost efficient to purchase items locally, rather than send them overseas,” said Arif Shaikh, spokesman for Islamic Relief USA, which hopes to raise up to $2 million through Internet donations and collections at mosques.

Buying supplies in the region saves on shipping costs and supports economies battered by disaster, relief experts say.

Compiled from reports by The Chicago Tribune, The Associated Press, Reuters and Seattle Times staff reporter Brier Dudley.