The United States yesterday pledged more help for the tsunami-ravaged regions of South Asia and East Africa, and President Bush issued his first public statement on "one of the...

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WASHINGTON — The United States yesterday pledged more help for the tsunami-ravaged regions of South Asia and East Africa, and President Bush issued his first public statement on “one of the major natural disasters in world history.”

“This has been a terrible disaster,” the president said, interrupting a weeklong holiday at his ranch outside Crawford, Texas, to make a personal comment on a crisis that “shocked and saddened” him.

“I mean, it’s just beyond our comprehension to think about how many lives have been lost,” said Bush, spelling out relief efforts by the U.S. military. “The United States will continue to stand with the affected governments as they care for the victims. We will stand with them as they start to rebuild their communities, and together the world will cope with their loss.”

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The president also assembled a four-nation coalition with Japan, Australia and India to organize relief and made clear the United States will help bankroll long-term rebuilding in the region.

Marc Grossman, undersecretary of state, will lead a U.S. task force to coordinate the U.S. response and urge other nations to assist in relief efforts. A late-night conference call was scheduled to link officials in the four capitals.

Bush said he was open to other ideas, including a suggestion from German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder for a moratorium on the debts of hard-hit Somalia and Indonesia.

Bush had been criticized in some quarters for not making a personal appearance earlier to express his sympathy for victims of the tsunami, quickly shaping up to be the deadliest natural disaster in decades. The U.S. response to the catastrophe could help shape views of the United States in the region, analysts said.

The United States already had pledged $35 million in relief aid and dispatched military ships and cargo jets to the earthquake-stricken region. The U.S. Pacific Command also said yesterday it is deploying 20 ships from docks in Hong Kong, Guam and the island of Diego Garcia.

The ships are loaded with medical equipment and mobile hospitals, 41 helicopters, 2,100 Marines, 1,400 sailors and the capacity to generate 600,000 gallons of fresh water daily.

“We’re going to take this now to a new level,” Grossman said.

Bush, who was said to be “clearing brush” at his ranch Monday morning, waited until yesterday to issue a personal statement. After a briefing by National Security Council advisers, Bush summoned reporters to make a statement and answer questions.

He bristled at suggestions that U.S. aid was “stingy,” a word used this week by U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland, who complained that the richest nations contribute less than 1 percent of their gross domestic product to foreign aid. Egeland said the next day that his complaint wasn’t directed at any one nation.

“I felt like the person who made that statement was very misguided and ill-informed,” Bush said. “For example, in the year 2004, our government provided $2.4 billion in food, in cash, in humanitarian relief to cover the disasters for last year.

“We’re a very generous, kindhearted nation,” he added.

U.S. foreign aid amounts to about 0.1 percent of the nation’s gross income, according to the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. This is the lowest among 30 industrialized, mostly European nations, whose aid averages 0.4 percent of gross income.

Other calculations come up with different results. The United States ranks seventh among 21 industrial nations in contributions in foreign aid, according to an annual ranking by the Center for Global Development in Washington, D.C., that takes into account the sizes of each donor nation.

Denmark and the Netherlands ranked No. 1. Sweden, Australia, Britain and Canada also ranked ahead of the United States, which was tied for seventh place with France, Germany and Norway.

Unlike the Paris ranking, this calculation includes technical assistance and other nonfinancial help given by the United States.

“Wealth should be one of the primary limitations in determining what we can afford” for overall aid, said Nigel Purvis, an expert on foreign aid at the Brookings Institution and deputy assistant secretary of state under former President Clinton. “Based on that measure, we are doing less than we ought to.”

However, in total dollars, the United States provides more foreign aid than any other nation.

Details on the four-nation coalition were reported by The Associated Press.