Indonesian Ministry Hikes Tsunami Death Toll

Published January 19, 2005

| Associated Press

Indonesia's Health Ministry declared Wednesday that more than 70,000 people previously listed as missing are dead, significantly raising its estimate for the death toll from last month's tsunami (search).

If confirmed, the overall tsunami death toll in 11 countries would climb to over 221,100, including 166,320 dead in Indonesia.

However, the Health Ministry's count differed sharply from other Indonesian government tallies. The Social Affairs Ministry has been keeping a count that on Wednesday stood at 114,978 dead and 12,132 missing.

Officials have frequently cautioned that compiling accurate figures for the dead or missing is almost impossible, and that a definitive death toll may never be reached.

After weeks ferrying supplies to survivors in the largest humanitarian mission in the U.S. military's history, a top commander said Thursday the effort will be scaled down by late February, although troops will continue to respond to specific aid requests from affected nations.

Adm. Thomas Fargo (search), the commander in chief of the Pacific Command, said a 60-day period is a "pretty good benchmark" for the military to wind down its relief operations for the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami victims.

About 13,000 military personnel, of which about 12,000 are aboard 17 Navy ships, were deployed to South Asia — mostly to Indonesia — since January. Fargo did not give any numbers on how many troops would remain in the region after February.

In Indonesia, The Associated Press has used the Social Affairs Ministry count for its tally of the dead. The total death toll compiled by AP from governments in each country is at least 162,228. The United Nations (search) on Tuesday listed the number of dead in the Dec. 26 disaster at 165,493.

Indonesia is not the only country suffering from confusion in the count. In Sri Lanka, the Public Security Ministry and National Disaster Management Center have put out tolls of 38,195 and 30,920, respectively. The AP total is based on the disaster center's number.

Meanwhile, eager to show Indonesia will use international aid responsibly and take a firm stand against corruption, Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayuda said the government had recently appointed the accounting firm Ernst & Young (search) to track donations.

Foreign governments and international agencies have pledged some $4 billion in aid to the region. Indonesia, regularly listed as one the world's most corrupt countries, is expected to get the largest chunk.

"There is no need to be suspicious of Indonesia's management of funds," Wirayuda said. "It is in our interest that the money is managed in a transparent and accountable way."

Local anti-graft activists have said they fear about 30 percent of the aid money projected to be spent on Indonesia's recovery could be stolen — about the same amount they estimate disappears each year from the national government's budget.

Japan issued a brief tsunami warning after a magnitude 6.8 earthquake struck off its eastern coast, sending a scare through the vast zone still struggling to recover from last month's disaster. But officials said the waves generated were less than a foot high and posed little danger.

By contrast, the waves triggered by last month's earthquake rose as high as 30 feet.

Japan's meteorological agency said the quake was centered 190 miles south of Tokyo, where it was hardly felt. There were no reports of damage or injuries.

A false tsumani alarm in the Chilean city of Concepcion sent thousands of people fleeing their homes Monday in a chaotic stampede in the middle of the night. Authorities were still seeking clues Wednesday on how the panic started.

At an international disaster conference in Kobe, Japan, the U.N. humanitarian chief said the United Nations should take the lead in creating a tsunami early-warning system in the Indian Ocean, similar to the one that exists in the Pacific.

Startup costs could come from money already pledged, said Jan Egeland, U.N. undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs.

However, the United States voiced doubts about the U.N. ability to run such a program. The United Nations "has to prove it has the capacity to do so," said Mark Lagon, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state. "There's no substitute for the will of the nations with the resources and the technology."

International health officials said hundreds of thousands of people remain at risk of disease in Indonesia's Aceh province, as stretched medical teams attempt to prevent outbreaks of measles, malaria, diarrhea and other diseases.

Emergency medical workers are "straining to stay ahead of a wide range of threats to a severely weakened, still disoriented and beleaguered population," said Bob Dietz, the World Health Organization spokesman in the provincial capital of Banda Aceh. "I still sense a precarious situation."

Dietz said some 20,000 children had been vaccinated for measles and efforts to vaccinate a million others were being hampered by a lack of medical staff.

"Measles kills 30 to 40 percent of kids it hits in a situation like this and possibly more given so many of these kids are weakened," he said.

There have so far been only isolated cases of the highly contagious disease reported.

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