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Prime Minister Paul Martin Tuesday praised relief efforts aimed at helping those hit by the devastating impact of hurricane Katrina, calling Canada a helping nation and reminding Canadians that aid in times of crisis has to extend beyond this country's borders.

The comments came as four Canadian vessels prepared to set sail Tuesday for hurricane-ravaged New Orleans, carrying aid for residents of the devastated region.

"The pictures on television - devastating as though they may be - can in no way convey reality of, really, the lack of hope and the suffering that the people of the southern United States are going through as a result of Katrina," Mr. Martin told Canadian Forces members as they prepared to embark on the journey.

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"So it is very important that you do what you are doing, we as a country are very grateful to each and every one of you."

Three Canadian navy ships and a Coast Guard vessel left Halifax harbour destined for the U.S. Gulf Coast early Tuesday afternoon. They carried as many as 1,000 Canadian Forces personnel.

The four ships include warships HMCS Athabasca, Ville de Québec and Toronto as well as the Canadian coast guard ship Sir William Alexander.

Three Sea King helicopters were also sent as part of the relief effort.

"Let me tell you what I believe this is all about," Mr. Martin said. "Canada was built by neighbours helping neighbours in times of crisis. That doesn't only apply within our borders. Neighbours helping neighbours applies every bit as much outside of our borders."

The mayor of New Orleans has said he fears the death toll in that city could hit 10,000.

U.S. Ambassador David Wilkins also offered his thanks to Canadians "for giving us your best when we need you the most."

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"Just as we were four years ago, after 9/11, my country is hurting, hurting deeply," he told the crowd. "Once again, Canada is coming to our rescue early and eagerly.

"Today you are reminding the victims of this disaster and all of us privileged here watching you in action that the human spirit at its best is more forceful and more powerful than any storm.

"Katrina may have dealt my country a devastating blow, and our hearts ache for victims and those now in such great need. But we know that with friends like Canada we will not and cannot fail."

The Canadian vessels will work alongside the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard in what has been described as among the biggest peacetime fleets ever put together. Canadian Forces members will include military engineers who might be able to restore power and generate electricity. About 40 navy divers were also expected to accompany the mission.

Officials say they are not sure how long Canada's relief effort will run.

"What we are preparing to do in a significant way is absolutely right and is absolutely what we should be doing," General Rick Hillier, chief of defence staff, said, praising the efforts of not only Canadian service personnel but also residents of Nova Scotia who worked through the long weekend to ensure that the cargo was ready.

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"Thank you very much for that," he said. "That is a great chapter that you helped to write in Nova Scotia and Halifax's history."

Meanwhile, Canadian officials have confirmed the safety and well being of 178 Canadians in the wake of hurricane Katrina.

Dan McTeague, parliamentary secretary for Canadians abroad, said they are trying to contact 62 others - 36 in Louisiana and 26 in Mississippi.

A substantial number of the 62, Mr. McTeague said, are permanent residents of the United States who may not need consular service.

Sixteen of them are tourists.

Mr. McTeague said nine other Canadians are listed as unaccounted for, and officials do not have enough information to determine if they have returned to Canada, are among the evacuees or are missing.

He says there are no known Canadian fatalities.

With a report from Broadcast News

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