U.N.: 800,000 Need Food Aid in Aceh

Nearly 800,000 people will need food aid in Indonesia's Aceh (search) province in the aftermath of the devastating Dec. 26 tsunami (search), a leading U.N. official said Monday, as the country's death toll from the disaster jumped by 5,000 for the second day in a row.

Signaling the enduring deprivation five weeks after the catastrophe, the number of destitute being fed by the World Food Program (search) in Aceh — now at 340,000 — was expected to soar as isolated villages are reached and the economic effects of the disaster take root.

"We are talking around 790,000 people" who will be in need of food assistance, WFP Aceh chief Claude Jibidar told The Associated Press in an interview.

It was the first time the WFP, which is running the biggest relief operation in Aceh, has put a figure on the number of people lacking food. Many in the province cannot sell cash crops due to disruption in trade networks, or because their food stocks have been shared with refugees.

Just over five weeks after the tsunami disaster, the overall death toll stood between 156,000 and 178,000 across 11 nations, with an estimated 26,500 to 142,000 missing, most of whom are presumed dead. The range in estimates reflects differing figures released by separate agencies in worst-hit Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

Indonesia's National Disaster Relief Coordinating Board said Monday the country's death toll rose by 5,085 — from 103,025 to 108,238 — because additional bodies were found and buried. The agency announced a similar increase on Sunday. The Health Ministry was expected to update its numbers in line with the disaster relief board's later in the day.

A third Indonesian agency has a higher death count, of 123,198.

Despite the expected rise in the number of people needing food aid, Jibidar said the WFP was confident it could take over logistical work currently being handled by foreign militaries as they scale down their presence in the coming weeks and months.

"We are prepared, we are ready, we have already started using civilian assets," said Jibidar. "We are in a position to take over and carry on the operations."

He also said he was sure that food supplies to the province would be enough to stave off malnutrition, which a report by the world body last week said affected 1 in 8 children in Aceh.

The biggest challenge will be continuing deliveries to western towns and villages that are inaccessible by land because Sumatra island's main coastal road was ruined by the tsunami. Some areas were completely washed out and many bridges were destroyed.

In Phuket, Thailand, international tourism officials were gathering Monday to work on ways of bringing back visitors and their needed cash to the region's resorts. Thousands in the region — including many foreign tourists — were swept away in the tsunami.

Reconstruction work has moved quickly in the area, but even untouched hotels and resorts remain nearly deserted.

In other developments:

— French construction giant Lafarge SA, the world's largest cement supplier, said it plans to invest "tens of millions of dollars" to rebuild a big cement factory in Aceh that was damaged by the tsunami.

— Austria announced it would send a team of experts to Sri Lanka to help rebuild its rail system, which was badly damaged by the waves.

— Thailand is to establish a tsunami museum to chronicle the plight of survivors and changes to the environment in areas devastated by the waves.