Lawlessness, health concerns as Indonesian disaster shoots above 79,000

12-30-2004, 14h11
BANDA ACEH, Indonesia (AFP)

Indonesia's tsunami nightmare continued with a death toll surpassing 79,000 on flattened coastlines as panic stirred lawlessness and vital aid slowly reached the sick and hungry.

Five days after an earthquake of terrifying proportions sent towers of water crashing onto Sumatra island, rescuers found few people alive among floating graveyards of swollen corpses and pulverised homes on isolated oceanfronts.

Collapsed bridges and broken roads leading to Aceh's northwest coast, a blasted landscape of levelled buildings tangled with piles of naked and grotesque dead, forced the military to parachute food to starving survivors.

Similar scenes were repeated on shorelines around the Indian Ocean after shockwaves carried tsunamis as far afield as Africa, killing more than 118,000 -- but most were from Indonesia.

With 100,000 people left homeless by the magnitude 9.0 earthquake -- centred less than 150 kilometre (93 miles) off Aceh -- generous offers of aid were pouring into Indonesia but most was yet to reach its destination.

Purnomo Sidik, the head of the Indonesian government's social affairs disaster control directorate, told AFP that a fuel shortage had resulted in a traffic jam of planes at the airport in Medan, the major city on Sumatra.

Even with people urgently needing food and hospitals crying out for medicines, with no fuel for trucks carrying the aid, little could be done to deliver it to where it was most needed, he said.

"There is enough relief aid. So much that it is a problem to park aircraft carrying them at the airport in Medan," Sidik said.

More harrowing stories of death and survival were emerging from the west coast town of Meulaboh, where many of the Aceh's tsunami victims lost their lives as waves levelled mile upon mile of houses, offices and shops.

Captain Bachtiar, a member of the military command in the town, said Meulaboh had been struck by seven successive tsunami onslaughts, which nearly claimed his life as his leg became trapped.

"I had already accepted my fate. My entire body was aching and I felt there was no longer any hope. But suddenly... my leg miraculously managed to loosen itself," he said. A successive wave threw him safely into a tree top.

Indonesian military deputy spokesman Colonel Ahmad Yani Basuki said troops had arrived in Meulaboh roughly 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles) northwest of Jakarta, where hungry survivors have been scrabbling in the mud for food.

In the provincial capital Banda Aceh soldiers working round the clock to dispose of festering mountains of dead.

Basuki said 2,500 corpses had been interred in mass graves in the space of 24 hours, with many more still littering the streets and river. He said there were hundreds trapped underneath the city's main bridge.

Further aftershocks continued to rattle Aceh on Wednesday and Thursday causing alarm, but Indonesia's Meteorology and Geophysics Office said they were not large enough to cause another tsunami.

With nerves frayed in Aceh, the deeply Islamic region was experiencing an unprecedented crime wave as looters ran amok unchecked by military and police tied up in the relief effort.

In Lhokseumawe, a relatively unscathed town on the northern coast of Sumatra's Aceh province, there were reports of thieves entering and exploiting the crisis by sparking false alarms to get residents to flee.

Meanwhile the Misna Catholic news agency in Rome said it had received reports of an arson attack on a Methodist church in Banda Aceh in which a protestant preacher and his wife were killed.

"There are raids by people seeking food and there are threats against foreigners," Misna said.

Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on Thursday urged separatist rebels who have been fighting a long-running independence battle in Aceh to take the opportunity of the disaster to throw down their weapons for good.

"I call on those who are still raising arms, to come out... let us use this historic momentum to join and be united again," he said.

Both sides have called unilateral ceasefires after the catastrophe to help with humanitarian relief.

Yudhoyono also called for a UN-sponsored international conference to discuss relief operations for nations affected by the Asian tsunamis.