Death Toll Tops 60,000, Disease Feared

Published December 29, 2004

| Associated Press

Indonesia readied bulldozers to dig mass graves Wednesday for thousands of bodies rotting on Sumatra island in a bid to ward off diseases, while the confirmed death toll in Asia and Africa from the mammoth quake and tsunami (search) rose above 60,000 with thousands more missing.

In Thailand (search), the government said 473 foreigners of 36 nationalities had already been confirmed dead and bodies were still washing up on its tourist beaches three days after the 9.0-earthquake struck off Indonesia's coast. About 2,000 Scandinavians are missing along with 200 guests at an exclusive French-owned hotel.

Many who escaped the initial quake and deadly tsunami must now contend with hunger, homelessness and the threat of diseases, which the U.N. (search) health agency said could double the toll.

In Banda Aceh, in the capital of Aceh province on Sumatra's northern tip, government officials expressed concerns that aid was not arriving fast enough.

Bulldozer drivers prepared to bury the thousands of dead bodies that littered the streets and lined the front lawns of government offices in Banda Aceh. With the threat of disease on the rise and few ways to identify the dead, officials said they had no choice to but start burying them in mass graves, said military Col. Achmad Yani Basuki.

"We will start digging the mass graves today," he said.

Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin, another military spokesman, said that naval ships headed Wednesday for the west coast with tons of food, water and medicine. He also said the convoy would include a portable hospital.

"This is first time we are able to send help there," Sjamsoeddin said. "We have very sketchy information about how many died there and the extent of the devastation. We're having extraordinary problems communicating there."

Rescue teams have yet to visit large parts of Aceh, especially along its western coast. But on Wednesday, nearly 100 doctors began arriving in Banda Aceh and said they would be setting up four hospitals across the province.

The quake and tsunami has devastated much of the province's infrastructure, and distribution of supplies to its 4.3 million people will be difficult, foreign aid workers warned.

Aceh has been wracked by a separatist war for the past 26 years, and Jakarta had banned foreign journalists and international aid agency representatives from visiting the region. But the government Monday lifted the ban, and said it would welcome aid.

On Wednesday, Purnomo Sidik, national disaster director at Indonesia's Social Affairs Ministry, raised the death toll on Sumatra island by almost 2,500 to 32,490. The count did not include a report of 10,000 more dead around one Indonesian coastal city.

"The number of victims could go as high as 40,000 because many of the regions along the western coast of Sumatra cannot be reached," said Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla.

Sri Lanka listed 21,700 people dead, India 4,491 and Thailand 1,500, with the toll expected to rise. A total of more than 300 were killed in Malaysia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, the Maldives, Somalia, Tanzania, Seychelles and Kenya.

Indonesia's count did not include a report of 10,000 more dead around one coastal city, and the country's vice president estimated the overall toll at 40,000.

Aid groups struggled to mount what they described as the largest relief operation the world has seen, and to head off the threat of cholera and malaria epidemics that could break out where water supplies are polluted with bodies and debris.

With aid not arriving quickly enough, desperate people in towns across Sumatra stole whatever food they could find, officials said.

Widespread looting also was reported in Thailand's devastated resort islands of Phuket and Phi Phi, where European and Australian tourists left valuables behind in wrecked hotels when they fled — or were swept away by — the torrents.

An international airlift was under way to ferry critical aid and medicine to Phuket and to take home shellshocked travelers. Jets from France and Australia were among the first to touch down at the island's airport. Greece, Italy, Germany and Sweden planned similar flights.

Dr. David Nabarro, head of crisis operations for the World Health Organization, warned that disease could take as many lives as Sunday's devastation.

"The initial terror associated with the tsunamis and the earthquake itself may be dwarfed by the longer term suffering of the affected communities," he told reporters at the U.N. agency's offices in Geneva.

Along India's southern coast, paramedics on Wednesday began vaccinating 65,000 tsunami survivors in Tamil Nadu state against cholera, typhoid, hepatitis A and dysentery, said Gagandeep Singh Bedi, a top government administrator.

"We have started spraying bleaching powder on the beaches from where the bodies have been recovered," said Veera Shanmuga Moni, a top administrator of the state's Nagappattinam district.

The world's biggest reinsurer, Germany's Munich Re, estimated the damage to buildings and foundations in the affected regions would be at least $13.6 billion.

Donations for recovery efforts came in from all parts of the globe. The governments of the United States, Australia and Japan pledged a combined $100 million.

In Thailand, rescuers were hoping for "individual miracles" of survival as they combed the beaches and islands Wednesday for missing tourists and locals swept away by earthquake-powered tidal waves.

Although the official death toll stood at 1,500, a police officer said the total death toll there could reach 3,000.

Police Col. Arun Khaewwathi, chief of Takua Pa district north of Phuket, said the corpses were discovered in three locations including Khao Lak, a stretch of beach studded with what were recently luxury hotels.

Shortage of equipment, heat and the fear of aftershocks were hampering the search, he said, adding that sniffer dogs were needed to help locate bodies covered by debris.

Some 30 rescue workers from Sweden, Germany and Taiwan were helping the Thais comb the worst-hit areas as bodies were still washing up on several beaches three days after the waves struck.

Although the toll was expected to soar, a total of 473 foreigners of 36 nationalities were confirmed killed, the Interior Ministry's Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation said. Victims included 54 from Sweden, 49 from Germany, 43 from Britain and 20 Americans.

"There is still hope for a portion of those missing, unfortunately a minority, several dozen. For the rest, we have little hope, except for individual miracles," said Jean-Marc Espalioux, chairman of the Accor hotel group which owns the Sofitel where more than 200 guests were still missing.

They were among thousands of Western and Asian holiday-makers packing hotels and bungalows during the height of the tourist season when killer waves struck Sunday.

Sweden's Foreign Minister Laila Freivalds said "we fear than many of (the missing Swedes) will not be found." Some 1,500 Swedes are missing, 200 Finns, 200 Danes and hundreds of Norwegians, according to reports from Scandinavian capitals.

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