JAKARTA, Indonesia – Indonesia's Health Ministry on Tuesday lowered its death toll from last month's tsunami (search) after changing the way it tallies victims by only counting bodies that have been buried.
The change lowered confirmed deaths from 170,000 to 96,000. The ministry said another 132,000 were missing — most of them presumed dead — raising the possibility that Indonesia alone may have lost 228,000 people in the disaster.
Those still missing after a year will be declared dead, the ministry said. Previously, it said about 12,000 were missing.
The Health Ministry's new procedure brought its numbers in line with another government agency tallying the dead, the National Disaster Relief Coordinating Board.
"The minister ordered us to do this to avoid confusion," said Dr. Doti Indrasanto, the Health Ministry official in charge of the death count. "People have been complaining."
But there were still discrepancies over deaths in both Indonesia and Sri Lanka (search), the two worst-hit countries. Government ministries have provided conflicting figures, reflecting the difficulties of finding, identifying, counting and burying the bodies from the Dec. 26 disaster.
Indonesia's Social Affairs Ministry, which conducts its own casualty tally, raised its estimate of dead by 9,000 Tuesday to a total of 123,198.
In Sri Lanka, officials asked President Chadrika Kumaratunga (search) to sort out differences between one ministry's tally of 38,195 dead and another's of 30,957.
The latest figures put the overall death toll — excluding the missing — across the 11-nation disaster zone between 143,877 and 178,081.
In Banda Aceh, the capital of Indonesia's worst-hit province, backhoes expanded one of the larger mass graves Tuesday on the main road from the city's airport as a dump truck unloaded dozens of bodies.
Complicating the official counts was the lack of precedent for dealing with a disaster of this scale.
Indonesian law provides no guidance on when missing people should be declared dead, said Iskandar Sitorus, a lawyer with the Health Legal Aid Foundation.
"I think the best way is the president has to issue a new decree," Sitorus said.
Under Sri Lankan law, family members of a missing person are required to wait for a year before starting the legal process to establish that the person is dead, said Hemantha Warunakalasuriya, a prominent lawyer with the Sri Lankan Legal Aid Foundation.
The required evidence includes a birth certificate, proof of residence and at least two affidavits from neighbors certifying the missing person was known to them.
"It is a long and complicated process," Warunakalasuriya said.
But with 5,644 people listed as missing from the tsunami in Sri Lanka, the country's chief justice has asked the Bar Association to find a more streamlined process.
Indonesian officials, meanwhile, tried to dispel charges that corrupt officials were siphoning off aid for tsunami victims by saying the government would publish a monthly list of aid donated for relief operations.
"We will announce every month, on the 26th, the money we receive," Welfare Minister Alwi Shihab said in Banda Aceh. "We will list down all contributions and where it is going to avoid any suspicion."
A fire in Banda Aceh that started Monday night was burning across a debris-strewn area at least a half-mile across Tuesday. Gas cylinders in the ruins of houses flattened by the tsunami were exploding in the flames.
Firefighters complained they were running out of water and said debris blocked them from getting close enough to the blaze. No one was known to be living in the area since the disaster.
One month after the waves ravaged Asian coastlines, scaring away foreigners at the height of tourist season, governments were trying to lure them back.
Meeting in Malaysia, tourism ministers of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations pleaded with Western governments not to warn citizens against travel to disaster-hit areas.
After the tsunami, many European governments, such as Denmark, Norway and Sweden, issued advisories to their citizens not to travel to devastated areas in Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and the Maldives. Some of the advisories since have been lifted.