Blair Returns To UK Under Fire Over Tsunami Reaction

By Mike Wendling | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

London ( - British Prime Minister Tony Blair faced criticism at home Wednesday after returning from a vacation more than a week after the tsunami disaster in South Asia.

Blair remained with his family at an Egyptian resort as the death toll from the tragedy continued to rise, leaving his potential successor, Chancellor (Treasury Secretary) Gordon Brown to coordinate aid efforts.

The country's Foreign Office has estimated that up to 200 British citizens were killed by the giant wave and its aftermath. The number is roughly double the number of U.K. nationals killed in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Estimates of the total death toll have exceeded 150,000. People across Europe observed three minutes of silence for the victims at 12 p.m. local time Wednesday.

Speaking to the media on Wednesday morning for the first time since the disaster, Blair defended his decision to stay in Egypt. He said the government will give "hundreds of millions" to those affected by the disaster.

"I don't think this is a situation in which the British people need me to articulate what they feel," Blair told British Broadcasting Corp. radio.

"I think they feel, as we all do, shock, horror, and absolute solidarity with those people who have lost their lives," he said.

Members of the British public have pledged about $140 million to the tsunami victims; until Wednesday, promised U.K. government aid totaled less than $100 million.

That disparity turned the government's response to the crisis into a political issue, with Conservative Party leader Michael Howard accusing the Blair administration of "playing catch-up" with donations from the public.

"My estimate is that we will end up needing to spend from government funds several hundred million pounds," Blair told the BBC. "So we will far and away more than match the generosity of the British people, though that has been remarkable."

Brown, the British Treasury Secretary, has started a drive to forgive the national debt of the affected nations through the G7 group of the world's largest economies. He plans to present detailed proposals to a meeting of creditor countries, the Paris Club, next week.

"Our proposal is that, with immediate effect, the Paris Club should expect no debt repayment from afflicted countries. That would then lead to an analysis of the needs of these countries, with the possibility of some debt relief, at the same time ensuring that the money goes to the people and areas in greatest need," Brown said in a statement released by the Treasury.

Canada, France and Germany have expressed support for the plans, while American officials have said they will study the proposals.

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