BANDA ACEH, Indonesia – Dozens of bloated bodies littered the streets of Banda Aceh city Monday as soldiers and volunteers searched for survivors of an earthquake and tsunamis (search) that killed at least 4,491 people in Indonesia.
On the outskirts of the city, relatives searched for loved ones among around 500 dead bodies that were lined up under plastic tents, rotting in the tropical heat, said an Associated Press reporter at the scene.
The government warned of the danger of disease spreading in the city, the capital of Aceh province.
"We are trying to give the bodies a proper burial but there are so many of them," Dr. Indrawadi Tamin, from the national disaster handling agency, told The AP. "We fear the rapid spread of cholera and dysentery."
Sunday's earthquake destroyed dozens of buildings in Banda Aceh (search) before triggering tidal waves that turned the streets into rivers and washed away scores of houses.
Some 3,000 people — many of them young children — died in the city, which has been virtually cut off since the quake struck due to power cuts and downed telephone wires.
Communication was still cut off to several other towns in Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra island. The island bore the brunt of the destruction from the 9.0-magnitude quake, which was centered just off its western coast.
The quake — the world's most powerful in 40 years — sent massive tidal waves slamming into coastlines across Asia. More than 14,000 people died in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India, Malaysia, Thailand, the Maldives, Somalia and Bangladesh.
On Sumatra, a million people were left homeless, the health ministry said.
Several aftershocks hit the island, witnesses and officials said, but there were no reports of fresh damage or more tsunamis.
Villagers in Sunadon district, near northern Aceh's Lhokseumawe city, picked through the debris of their ruined houses amid the smell of decomposing bodies.
One man, Rajali, said he had lost his wife and two children to flooding and couldn't find dry ground to bury them. Islamic tradition demands that the deceased be buried as soon as possible.
"What shall I do?" said the 55-year-old, who like many Indonesians goes by a single name. "I don't know where to bury my wife and children."
At least 4,491 people were killed on Sumatra and on Nias, an isolated island that lies west of Sumatra, State Secretary Yusril Mahendra told reporters in Jakarta.
Scores of others were missing, including at least 200 police and family members believed buried under their barracks in Banda Aceh, which were demolished by the quake, a police spokesman said. On Nias, 72 people were unaccounted for, police said.
"We have ordered 15,000 troops into the field to search for survivors," said military spokesman Edy Sulistiadi. "They are mostly retrieving corpses."
Dr. Tambah Taibsyah at the city's Cut Meutia hospital, which was treating some 100 seriously injured patients, said "we are now running out of medicines."
Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who was in Papua province visiting the victims of a recent earthquake there, declared three days of national mourning.
He was scheduled to visit Aceh, home to about 4.3 million people, later Monday.
Separatist violence has torn Aceh for the past 26 years, and Jakarta has prevented foreign journalists and international aid agency representatives from visiting the region for more than a year.
The government said it was considering relaxing the restrictions on foreigners so they could help in relief efforts, and would make a decision on Wednesday.
The United Nations and other international relief agencies in Jakarta were planning to send assesment teams to the province in the next few days, officials in the capital said.