Asian disaster toll surges past 55,000 as relief operations stall

12-28-2004, 18h21
BANDA ACEH, Indonesia (AFP)

Logistical problems hampered a massive humanitarian relief operation along Asia's devastated shores as the death toll from a huge earthquake and killer tidal waves surged past 55,000.

With the scale of the catastrophe rapidly unfolding, the confirmed number of dead in 10 countries shot up to 55,335 and looks set to go even higher.

Indonesia's Aceh province accounted for half of those killed, or 27,174, while in Sri Lanka 17,800 were confirmed dead.

The head of Italy's civil emergency relief services, charged with coordinating all rescue operations in the region by the European Union, warned the overall death toll could surpass 100,000.

"The number of victims is destined to increase over the coming days and I fear that in the end it will be more than 100,000 deaths even if we will never know the exact figure because there is no register of the population in most of the affected countries," Guido Bertolaso, director of the Italian civil protection unit said.

In some areas food and medicines were in desperately short supply.

In India's Andaman and Nicobar islands, where at least 4,000 people are confirmed dead, coastguard officials said the toll on Car Nicobar alone could top 10,000.

Police said they had received no word from dozens of islands in the Andaman and Nicobar chain which stretch over 800 kilometres (496 miles) and were close to the epicentre of the earthquake.

In Thailand, the toll rose to 1,516, with 8,432 injured and thousands listed as missing, the interior ministry said. The missing includes 1,500 Swedes whose government presumes are dead.

At least 700 foreign tourists are believed to be among those killed, and relatives across Europe were desperately seeking news of missing loved ones.

The quake Sunday, the biggest in 40 years at 9.0 on the Richter scale, ruptured the Indian Ocean seabed off Indonesia's Sumatra island, sending huge waves thousands of kilometres (miles) to kill and destroy in countries around southern and southeast Asia and even in Africa.

In Indonesia, the death toll leapt suddenly as casualties were tallied from Aceh Jaya, an isolated region on the northwestern coast of badly-hit Sumatra island which lies less than 150 kilometres (120 miles) from the quake's epicentre.

Bodies continued to be pulled from washed out trains, cars and smashed buildings in Sri Lanka, as the death toll jumped above 17,000.

Mass funerals were taking place across the region amid scenes of traumatic grief as bodies lay rotting along coastlines to a point where identification was no longer possible.

"The people should be buried and the animals should be destroyed and disposed of before they infect the drinking water. It's a massive operation," said UN disaster relief coordinator Jan Egeland.

Gruesome scenes met emergency teams in the worst hit countries of Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia and Thailand, while the death tolls ticked up even in the less affected areas of Malaysia, the Maldives and Myanmar.

As survivors were evacuated from stricken areas tales of the full horror of carnage wrought by the tidal waves emerged: babies torn from their parents' hands, children and the elderly hurled out to sea from their homes, entire villages swept away.

Hundreds of rescue ships, helicopters and planes were mobilised to evacuate tourists from wrecked resorts and airlift stricken victims to hospitals already overflowing with the injured and corpses.

In Sri Lanka, drinking water wells were already badly contaminated with sea water, government minister Susil Premajayantha said, but the biggest fear is of water contamination by decomposing bodies which could spark epidemics of cholera and typhoid, experts warned.

"The biggest health challenges we are facing are the spread of waterborne diseases," said International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies health official Hakan Sandbladh.

Compounding the problem is the huge number of people left homeless, and a lack of food.

In Aceh province, a lone SOS call from police in cut-off Meulaboh said looting had broken out and starvation loomed.

"If within three to four days relief does not arrive, there will be a starvation disaster that will cause mass deaths," chief police detective Rilo Pambudi said in the e-mail, released by officials in Jakarta.

In southern India, vultures gathered as survivors grimly buried or burnt their dead. The number of dead passed 8,500 Tuesday.

Tens of thousands spent the night huddling in emergency relief camps as the government stepped up relief efforts and the Indian Red Cross appealed for food, clothes and tarpaulins.

In the worst-hit Indian state of Tamil Nadu, fisherman A. Ravi wept as he recalled watching his family, including four children, swept away as his village was flattened.

"We went fishing in the early morning and a few hours later the water started swirling around us and suddenly the level went down so sharply we could see the seabed," said Ravi.

"Then I saw a huge sheet of water going towards the shore... when I got back I found my village under water and my family gone," he said.

Similar stories of personal tragedy were repeated throughout the region, with new horrors revealed each time rescuers reach previously cut off areas.

As countries mobilised their resources to help the victims, dazed foreigners began flying home -- still struggling to come to grips with what had happened.

The waves triggered by the quake were so powerful that the destruction reached the shores of Africa about 7,000 kilometres (4,000 miles) away, killing more than 100 Somali fishermen.

The tragedy has sparked a growing chorus of calls for a tsunami alert system, as many victims were swept from coastlines hours after the quake which triggered the giant waves was recorded.