Secretary of State Colin Powell saw the devastation of tsunami-hit Asia on Wednesday and found it more horrible than the war he had witnessed during decades as a soldier.
As Powell got a bird's-eye view of the broken coastal landscape of northwest Sumatra, world leaders began gathering in Indonesia's capital Jakarta for Thursday's summit on rebuilding the millions of lives shattered by the giant waves 10 days ago.
Australia and Germany dramatically pledged more than a billion dollars in aid to the region. A debt relief initiative by rich nations gathered momentum. Powell promised the United States would send more helicopters, food and clean water to isolated survivors of the disaster that killed more than 145,000 people. Last week Washington was accused of being too slow to react.
"I have been in war and I have been through a number of hurricanes, tornadoes and other relief operations, but I have never seen anything like this," America's former top soldier said.
Powell, 67, served two combat tours in Vietnam during a 35-year military career that ended with his service as the country's military chief.
"I cannot begin to imagine the horror that went through families and all of the people who heard this noise coming and then had their lives snuffed out by this wave," he said.
After a helicopter tour, Powell left for Jakarta where U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and other world leaders were arriving for Thursday's global relief summit for tsunami-hit Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, Maldives and Malaysia.
Annan called on world leaders to honor their pledges of aid, saying it should be "fresh and additional money, not robbing Peter to pay Paul, pulling it from other crises."
International aid groups echoed Annan's call.
"We must ensure we don't repeat mistakes of previous humanitarian crises in Afghanistan, Liberia and elsewhere where donors have either failed to deliver the aid quickly enough, or at all, or delivered aid at the expense of other disasters," said Barbara Stocking, director of Oxfam.
As the leaders gathered, people in Europe from Riga to Rome observed three minutes of silence to remember the dead, who included several thousand tourists, many of them Europeans.
Public buildings in Europe flew flags at half mast, stock exchanges fell silent, crowded railway stations came to a standstill and television and radio stations broadcast solemn music in memory of the victims.
Annan was expected to announce a U.N. tsunami appeal at the Jakarta conference, which would also discuss the possibility of an immediate freeze of debt payments by affected countries.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said he believed the Group of Seven industrialized nations would be able to agree on debt relief for Sri Lanka and Indonesia, which suffered most from the Dec. 26 disaster.
Japan joined other G7 members Britain, the United States, Canada and France in supporting a debt payment moratorium, which will be discussed in Jakarta and also at a meeting next Wednesday of the Paris Club of creditor nations.
Germany raised its aid to tsunami-hit countries to 500 million euros ($680.2 million) from 20 million euros previously, while Australian Prime Minister John Howard pledged A$1.0 billion (US$765 million) over five years to Indonesia.
Indonesia's Aceh province lost nearly 100,000 people, about two-thirds of all those killed by the Indian Ocean tsunami triggered by a giant undersea quake just off its coast.
Indonesia said half a million people -- 80,000 above earlier estimates -- were homeless in Aceh, where the hungry scavenged for food and water and an endless flow of wounded people flooded hospitals.
Indonesia said a regional tsunami warning system, better aid coordination and "the sustainability of the process, in particular future rehabilitation and reconstruction" were key elements of the Jakarta talks.
U.N. officials said they were worried that orphaned or lost children might fall prey to criminal gangs bent on selling them into slavery.
There was worrying news Wednesday in the case of missing 12-year-old Swedish boy Kristian Walker, whose reported kidnapping from a Thai hospital by a Western man sparked a worldwide media frenzy.
Thai police said they had found the Western man who told them he had accompanied a German boy to the hospital, not Kristian, apparently dashing hopes the child might be alive.
Children make up a third -- 50,000 -- of the dead. Tens of thousands more have been orphaned.
"It is hard to imagine the fear, confusion and desperation of children who have seen enormous waves wash away their worlds and cast dead bodies upon the shore," UNICEF executive director Carol Bellamy said.
At an orphanage in southern India, 15-year-old Sitha, her sister Sitha Lakshmi, 10, and 8-year-old brother Amitha grappled with the loss of their parents.
"I'm the head of the family now," Sitha said, holding back tears. "I have to look after them. Mummy wanted them to get educated and I have to make that happen now."
The World Health Organization estimated more than half a million people were injured and in need of medical care in six nations. Fears grew that diseases such as cholera and malaria would break out among the five million displaced.
"It is a race against time," it said in a report.
In one rare good-luck tale, a cargo ship rescued an Aceh man who spent eight days floating in the sea on an uprooted tree, living largely off coconuts and rain.