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Forensics Experts Work to ID Tsunami Victims

Forensics experts were poring over fingerprints and dental records to identify victims from the Asian tsunami, hoping to get the easier matches out of the way before tackling the time-consuming process of DNA analysis (search).

Hundreds of bodies being kept at makeshift mortuaries were examined by more than 40 technicians at the Disaster Victim Identification (search) center on Monday, said Jeff Emery, DVI commander and an Australian Federal Police inspector.

"We're taking information from all deceased. There's no discrimination — it's for all countries," he told reporters.

Experts pored over sheafs of fingerprints and held dental X-rays up to the light at the center north of tsunami-stricken Phuket (search).

So far the center has received more than 500 reports from field workers examining the remains of some of the nearly 5,300 people who perished Dec. 26, when massive waves barreled ashore along this palm-fringed coastline popular among Western tourists. Another 3,716 people are missing.

The tsunami, triggered by an undersea earthquake, claimed more than 150,000 lives in Asia and Africa, mostly in Indonesia, and forced millions from their homes.

Bodies can be released and repatriated only after a board comprising mainly Thai officials approves the center's findings, even if a family believes they have already identified their loved one's corpse from a photograph, said Kirk Coningham, a spokesman for the Australian Federal Police.

The Phuket identification center, set up with the help of Interpol, links law enforcement databases in 192 countries. It compares post-mortem evidence — from tattoos to body weight to DNA samples — with photos or other information about the victims supplied by relatives and official records.

Emery said there have been some "positive reports," but declined to specify how many matches had been made so far.

More than 400 international forensics specialists have been collecting data at two local Buddhist temples, where victims' bodies are being temporarily stored.

Hundreds of corpses have been examined since the disaster, but thousands have yet to be evaluated.

On Monday, leading Thai forensics expert Dr. Pornthip Rojanasunand said the bodies of hundreds of victims, hastily buried after the tsunami, were being exhumed so that new DNA samples could be taken.

The development came amid concerns that Westerners, who represent about half the victims, were misidentified as Thais and may be among the bodies buried or cremated following the disaster. Thai authorities have denied any Westerners were cremated.