Barack Obama assured Gulf residents and businesses on Monday the region's beaches will be restored to their 'pristine condition', promising the full force of his government to require British Petroleum (BP) to quickly pay damage claims.

Mr. Obama also told the country that seafood from the region remained safe and implored holiday-makers not to cancel visits to the Gulf coast where many of the famous white beaches remain untouched.

But oil from the blownout BP well is spoiling significant parts of the shoreline and already has penetrated into critical marshlands, threatening breeding grounds for wildlife, waterfowl and sea creatures, in particular, shrimp and oysters.

"I can't promise folks here in Theordore or across the Gulf that this oil will be cleaned up overnight," the President said. Yet he offered assurances that the "full resources of our government are being mobilised to confront this disaster".

Fund to be managed independently

Shortly before he began his tour of the region, spokesman Bill Burton told reporters with the President that the administration and BP were "working out the particulars" of Mr. Obama's demand that the oil giant set up a multibillion-dollar, independently-run damage fund.

Mr. Burton said the account would be in the hands of a third-party and would amount to "billions of dollars".

"We're confident that this is a critical way in which we're going to be able to help individuals and businesses in the Gulf area become whole again," he said.

Asserting leadership in face of calamity

On his fourth visit to the region, Mr. Obama was determined to assert leadership in face of the calamity, with the White House showing the President using all the power available to him to stem the continuing flood of oil into the Gulf and extract compensation from BP for victims of the tragedy.

As the damaged well continues spilling millions of gallons of crude oil from its rupture about a mile (1,500 meters) below the surface, Mr. Obama has taken a hit in the polls.

Dealing with the catastrophe has also forced him to spend huge amounts of time on the crisis, cutting severely into his schedule, including cancelling a trip to Asia and Australia, and threatening his legislative agenda on issues like financial overhaul, climate change and immigration reform.

Mr. Obama's first stop on Monday was a briefing at a Coast Guard station here on Mississippi's coast, where he said the two days in the region would help him prepare for Wednesday's showdown with BP. In particular, Mr. Obama said there continues to be problems with claims for damages and with effective coordination.

"We're gathering up facts, stories, right now so that we have an absolutely clear understanding about how we can best present to BP the need to make sure that individuals and businesses are dealt with in a fair manner and a prompt manner," the President said.

BP's board gathered on Monday in London to discuss deferring its second-quarter dividend and putting the money into escrow until the company's liabilities from the spill are known.

The administration had said earlier — uncertain that BP would voluntarily establish the damage fund — that Mr. Obama was prepared to force BP to take the step.

The President's two-day visit to Mississippi, Alabama and Florida precedes his first-ever Oval Office address to the U.S. Tuesday night and his first face-to-face meetings with BP executives on Wednesday.

BP's costs rise to $1.6 billions

BP said in a statement its costs for responding to the spill had risen to $1.6 billion, including new $25 million grants to Florida, Alabama and Mississippi. It also includes the first $60 million for a project to build barrier islands off the Louisiana coast. The estimate does not include future costs for scores of damage lawsuits already filed.

Mr. Obama's first three trips to the Gulf took him to the hardest-hit state, Louisiana. On Monday, Day 56 since the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded, killed 11 workers and unleashed a fury of oil into the Gulf, he started his tour in Gulfport, Mississippi. From the stop in Alabama, where oil was washing up in heavy amounts along the state's eastern shores, he moves on to Florida.

He will meet state and local officials eager for him to show command, provide manpower and supplies and also tell the public that despite the catastrophe that's crippling the fishing and tourist trades, many beaches are still open.

The administration said early Monday that BP had responded to a letter sent over the weekend asking the company to speed up its ability to capture the spewing oil.

In its response, BP said it would target containing more than 2 million gallons (8 million litres) of oil a day by the end of June, up from about 630,000 gallons (2.4 million litres) of crude a day now. The government's high-range estimates say as much as 2.1 million gallons (8 million litres) a day could be billowing from BP's runaway well.

Although BP is now siphoning significant amounts from its blownout well 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) below the ocean's surface, the leak will not be killed for good until relief wells are completed in August.

Increasingly accurate estimates of the spill have brought the enormity of the disaster into focus. Already, potentially more than 100 million gallons (380 million litres) of crude expelled into the Gulf, far outstripping the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster.