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Tsunami Death Toll Rises Above 162,000

Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz (search) on Sunday wrapped up a visit to Indonesia, where officials along the obliterated Sumatran coast reported finding 5,000 more bodies, raising the death toll in one of the world's worst natural disasters to more than 162,000.

Also, the U.S. military plans to wind down its presence in Thailand and Sri Lanka over the next two weeks, according to Marine Lt. Gen. Robert Blackman (search), who is in charge of coordinating American relief efforts in South Asia.

The announcement came as Jakarta (search) backed away from an earlier call for foreign troops delivering relief to be out of the country by March 26 — three months to the day after the earthquake and tsunami hit 11 nations.

"We would like to emphasize that March 26 is not a deadline for involvement of foreign military personnel in the relief effort," Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono said after meeting Wolfowitz in Jakarta.

Japan, meanwhile, was laying the groundwork for its military's biggest-ever overseas relief missions.

A 20-member Japanese medical team was in Sumatra as an advance party for about 1,000 troops who are expected to arrive later this month to help set up a hospital and deliver medical supplies, said Col. Takeshi Moriichi, commander of the medical corps for the Japanese Self-Defense Forces.

The forces — from the army, navy and air force — planned to stay about three months, Moriichi said.

U.S. forces are still working hard in Indonesia to deliver supplies to people in affected areas.

Indonesia "is clearly the most challenging" of the three countries, Blackman said. "You can't minimize 130,000 deaths on the island of Sumatra."

Wolfowitz praised American troops for their efforts to aid survivors and hinted that the American operation could mean closer military ties with Indonesia.

"We need to think about how we can strengthen this newly elected democratic government, strengthen the civilian defense minister ... to help build the kind of defense institution that will ensure in the future that the Indonesian military, like our military, is a loyal function of a democratic government," said Wolfowitz, a former U.S. ambassador to Jakarta.

Meanwhile, Australia and New Zealand — both of which lost vacationing citizens on the southern beaches of Thailand — observed a minute of silence at the precise time of the 9.0-magnitude earthquake that triggered the tsunami. Bells tolled and flags flew at half-staff.

"Three weeks ago, the world began to watch in horror as a catastrophe without precedent in recent times unfolded around the Indian Ocean," said New Zealand's Prime Minister Helen Clark (search).

Indonesia's Social Affairs Ministry said 12,132 people were still missing as bodies continued to be pulled from the wreckage of ravaged coastal settlements. It said 603,518 residents were displaced — about 100,000 fewer than the figure three days ago.

Many survivors, still stunned by the catastrophe, were giving up hope of finding missing family members.

After three weeks of scouring the muddy wastelands where his village in Sumatra once stood, Yusuf Abu said he doesn't believe he will ever again see any of the 67 missing from his family.

"I've walked and walked in search of them and gone through mass graves, but the bodies were no longer identifiable," the 64-year-old fishmonger said. "I feel so tired and now my legs are weak."

The leaders of Sweden, Norway and Finland arrived in Bangkok, Thailand, on Sunday to thank the nation and its people for helping care for thousands of Nordic tourists who were caught up in the turmoil.

"Many Swedes have given testimony about how they have been helped, not only by Thai authorities but also ordinary Thai citizens," Swedish Prime Minister Goeran Persson said at a news conference with Prime Ministers Matti Vanhanen of Finland and Kjell Magne Bondevik of Norway.

"You must all realize that this catastrophe is a catastrophe that we share," Persson said. "It has hit Sweden in an unprecedented way."

The heads of state planned during their two-day visit to meet with Thai and international forensic investigators, local police and others trying to determine the fate of more than 2,000 missing Swedes, Norwegians and Finns, and to travel to the southern resorts of Khao Lak and Phuket, where many people died in the disaster.

Maintaining a steady flow of relief supplies and preventing disease outbreaks were priorities in the current phase of the aid operation that not only included Indonesia, but Sri Lanka — where nearly 31,000 were killed — as well as India and Thailand, officials said.

The movement of relief supplies into Indonesia's northern Sumatra was expected to double with the opening of a second airport Sunday, as United Nations teams moved deeper into the interior to assess the plight of villagers who had fled the tsunami-devastated coastline.

The damaged airfield at Sabang Island, just off the northern tip of Sumatra, was back in operation with military C-130 transports from several nations scheduled to arrive in the coming days, said Lt. Cmdr. John Bernard, a U.S. Navy spokesman.

U.N. teams, assessing the state of survivors along the coast, were pushing as far as 12 miles into the interior to locate and determine the needs of displaced people, said Rob Holden of the U.N. World Health Organization.

"There is still significant risk to health. People are still drinking dirty water. There is a malaria threat. But to date we've had no disease outbreak," said Holden, who heads a 40-member health assessment team of experts from the United Nations, Indonesian government, U.S. military and non-governmental agencies.

The U.N. official lauded cooperation between foreign military units and civilian aid organizations. "There are times and places where the military and (aid groups) can work together. We proved it here."

But that cooperation hasn't gone as smoothly in Sri Lanka, where the government initially opposed a visit by the head of the U.N. World Food Program, James T. Morris, to rebel-held territory in the island-nation's north, citing security concerns.

On Sunday, however, Morris was allowed to meet S.P. Thamilselvan, the political chief of the Tamil Tiger rebels, to discuss distribution of food to tens of thousands of tsunami-affected people in the region.

WFP is providing food to 90,000 people in the rebel-controlled north, and the number is growing, Morris said.

"We are not involved in politics. We are involved in seeing that people are fed," said Morris, who earlier visited the badly hit southern port city of Galle.