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Tsunami Summit to Discuss Alert System, Show Support

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JAKARTA - Global leaders gathering in Jakarta to discuss the tsunami that devastated countries around the Indian Ocean will try to draw lessons from the disaster, including looking at a future warning system.
But as the list of attendees to the emergency summit grows, what it can achieve in one day becomes more unclear.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda announced Thursday's conference last week as a forum to appeal to the world for emergency aid. Since then food, supplies and cash have been pouring into tsunami-affected countries faster than their infrastructures can handle the aid.

Officials say long-term goals will now be the focus of the meeting, which also poses a massive security challenge for Jakarta, already on alert after recent bomb blasts blamed on militant Islamic groups.

"Through this conference we not only hope to generate international solidarity but also to coordinate relief assistance better, and also the sustainability of the process, in particular future rehabilitation and reconstruction," Wirajuda told reporters Tuesday.

He was speaking after meeting Secretary of State Colin Powell, who said the conference could help "make sure the money that has been pledged and the resources that are on the way are properly and appropriately distributed."

About 150,000 people are known to have died and millions have been made homeless by the Dec. 26 tsunami, triggered by a magnitude 9 quake off Indonesia's Sumatra island.

Indonesia's northern Aceh province is the worst-hit area, where nearly 100,000 people are known to have died.

In addition to Powell, leaders who have confirmed attendance include Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Australian Prime Minister John Howard.

Proposals are expected to be discussed for a moratorium on government debt of the affected nations. While there appears to be some support for such a move, it is not something the summit itself could do.

Speaking of a possible rescheduling of Indonesia's debt, Powell said: "This has to be dealt with not by the United States but in the Paris Club," referring to the international creditors' group which is due to meet on Jan. 12.

One commitment Indonesia hopes for from the conference is for the establishment of a regional tsunami warning system, which experts say could have saved many lives. Most victims had little or no warning.

Organized At Speed

The meeting has been organized at lightning speed for a gathering involving so many countries and so many leaders- it usually takes weeks if not months to circulate agendas, draft documents and proposed statements.

"All this is being created as we speak," a Western diplomat who declined to be named told Reuters.

"So many senior leaders are coming that there'll have to be some kind of statement of commitment, but what that statement will say exactly, obviously I don't know," he said.

The disaster is also still unfolding. The death toll is rising as hunger and disease stalk survivors. Aid is flowing but relief workers say with 13 countries affected distribution is a logistical nightmare.

Powell said the conference was structured so each affected country would be able to tell the others about its specific problems "and this will give us an opportunity to make sure we all have a good understanding of the need because the need is different in every country."

Some analysts say concrete long-term rehabilitation and reconstruction plans and cost estimates depend on detailed assessments difficult to make at a time when thousands of the dead are not yet buried and some isolated areas have only just been reached.

The International Monetary Fund said last week calculating the economic impact of the disaster would have to wait until immediate humanitarian needs are met.

Security Issues

Jakarta police say they are on high alert for the summit. "Two-thirds of our force have been mobilizing to secure facilities, such as hotels and the convention center," police chief Firman Gani told reporters.

The convention center is adjacent to Jakarta's Hilton hotel. Last month Western embassies warned of possible attacks against Hilton hotels in the country, hit by bombs in Bali in October 2002 that killed 202 people and attacks since on a JW Marriott hotel and the Australian embassy in Jakarta.

The attacks were blamed on a militant Islamic group linked to al Qaeda. Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim country, where the vast majority of practitioners are moderates.

In spite of everything, the symbolic importance of the conference should not be discounted, say analysts.

"It'll be a show of moral support ... it's a recognition of how bad this event truly was," said the Western diplomat.

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