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Core group washed away

Washington, Jan. 4: The core group of India, Japan, Australia and the US, set up to provide Asia-wide tsunami relief is to be disbanded, probably as soon as this week.

US secretary of state Colin Powell said before starting this week's Asian tour of a high-level American delegation, including him and Florida governor Jeb Bush, that the core group 'will go out of business as the UN gets itself geared up'.

The shortlived, four-nation arrangement, announced by President George W. Bush on December 29, has been controversial and invited open criticism in Europe and whispered disapproval at the UN.

The most outspoken criticism came from Clare Short, the former British minister for overseas development, whose voice is respected on matters of aid.

The core group also brought into the open rivalries within Asia, both among the region's powers, on one hand, and between the regional players and the US, on the other.

Yesterday, Powell went out of his way to calm any anxiety in Asia about the way the Americans have become involved in tsunami relief.

He told reporters that 'there are sovereign interests here in each of these countries. They are in charge of their relief effort. They are the ones responsible to their people.

'They will be there long after we have gone. And so, we have to make sure that what we are doing is consistent with the desires and the sovereign interests of those nations.'

Diplomats here said that by including India in the group, the US showed sensitivity and prevented any worries that might otherwise have been bred in Delhi over the geopolitics of tsunami aid.

Short said: 'I think this initiative for America to set up four countries claiming to coordinate sounds like yet another attempt to undermine the UN.'

Powell has been at pains to explain that 'the reason we created that core group of nations, it is because those nations are in the region, to include, if I may, the US because of our military presence in that part of the world. And what we needed to do was to make sure we were coordinating our efforts.

'What we have tried to do is use the core group. We called it 'core' as a way of getting started, recognising that it will ultimately be subsumed into the efforts of the UN'.

He said that by this week, 'the core group will have done its work and the whole international community will be very well coordinated and knitted up'.

Powell explained that the core group was formed as no mechanism was in place to coordinate relief efforts.

He admitted that 'there has been some controversy about this, but I immediately called (UN secretary-general) Kofi Annan at the same time we established the core group... I called all the foreign ministers of the three countries involved and said, 'Are you in' All three immediately agreed, and the next morning when I had their agreement, I called Kofi. We had been talking to the UN all along, and Kofi immediately agreed'.

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