More than 4,500 confirmed dead in Thailand, half of them foreigners

12-31-2004, 06h58
KHAO LAK, Thailand (AFP)

More than 4,500 people -- almost half of them foreign holidaymakers -- have been confirmed dead in Thailand's tsunami disaster and officials in the worst hit resort region say they expect to find hundreds more bodies later in the day.

The governor of Phang Nga province, which includes the devastated resort area of Khao Lak, said 2,027 foreigners and 1,662 Thais were confirmed dead there.

Interior ministry figures showed a total of 821 confirmed dead -- including 203 foreigners -- in the five other provinces on the Andaman Sea coast which were battered by huge waves last Sunday.

The combined data shows a total of 4,510 people including 2,230 foreigners confirmed killed in the whole country.

The ministry said 6,475 are missing nationwide and Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has said 80 percent of these should be presumed dead.

Phang Nga governor Anuwat Maytheevibulwut told AFP rescuers were Friday expected to retrieve 300 more corpses in his province alone.

"We will try to complete the task today on land but I have no idea how many would be floating in the sea," Anuwat said.

At least 100 more bodies are expected to be removed Friday from the once-idyllic Phi Phi island, said deputy interior minister Sutham Sangprathum.

He said a candlelight New Year vigil would be held on the island -- one of many planned in a sombre nation which normally marks the occasion with frenzied merrymaking.

European nations were also grieving.

New Year's Day will be an official day of mourning in Sweden. Prime Minister Goeran Persson said Thursday that 44 Swedes are confirmed dead in Thailand but that number "is going to end up in the hundreds, in the worst-case scenario exceed 1,000."

Norway said Thursday that at least 21 Norwegians died and 430 were missing across the Indian Ocean region. "We are faced with an incomprehensible tragedy that is growing by the hour," said Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik.

French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier said the same day that 19 French nationals died in Thailand and there was little hope for 90 who disappeared.

Britain warned nationals not to visit Thailand.

"Flooding, stagnant water, disruption of sewer lines, and poor quality sanitation conditions are conducive for the development of disease," the foreign office said.

In Ottawa, Thailand's ambassador Stanchart Devahastin pleaded for body bags, freezers, coffins and forensic experts to help store and identify decomposing corpses.

Thaksin, who has deployed 20,000 rescue workers, said the figure of those still missing is "very worrying."

He said the search of wrecked buildings had slowed, because of a shortage of heavy equipment and because some rescuers briefly fled Thursday due to a false alarm about more tsunamis.

Disposal of the masses of dead was posing a dilemma, with Western countries keen to preserve the remains for identification and Thai health officials favouring quick disposal in 33 degree Celsius (92 Fahrenheit) heat.

Refrigerated containers were in acutely short supply.

Thai officials and dozens of foreign forensic experts have now agreed that the bodies of foreigners will be collected at three sites in refrigerated containers pending an identification process which could take months, a French police source told AFP.

The bodies will be collected in Khao Lak, Phuket and Krabi province.

Photos and sometimes even fingerprints are useless in many cases because the corpses are so decomposed.

"As in all disasters, we are rushing afterwards. We have made progress but the disaster has also made progress," said one expert.