South Asia tsunami information   |   Information on Aceh

Toll tops 175,000 as Lanka adds thousands

17 January 2005

Asia's tsunami death toll topped 175,000 on Monday as officials in Sri Lanka said the more they cleared up, the more bodies they found.

The island added another 7275 victims to its list of the dead, taking the national toll over 38,000 and the overall toll around Indian Ocean nations to 175,458.

"We are coming across dead bodies on a daily basis as we clear the rubble," said Tilak Ranavirajah, a senior public security ministry official.

Hardest-hit Indonesia has steadily raised its total, but Sri Lanka's body count had stabilised around 30,000 until Monday.

US Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz flew to the island to see the clean-up efforts in the southern port of Galle.

Sri Lanka said it would begin its tsunami reconstruction phase on Wednesday in the obliterated town of Hambantota.

"We were not prepared at all ... to face a disaster like this," said President Chandrika Kumaratunga. "The people of this country faced it effectively, they are in a position to rebuild."

It is more than three weeks since a powerful earthquake off Indonesia's Sumatra island triggered the deadliest waves on record that hit more than a dozen countries from Asia to Africa.

Sri Lankans have now begun rebuilding tsunami-hit homes and hotels close to the shore, in defiance of a government ban.

"I'm worried about my family but I'm also worried about the future of my children. This is my business. How else will I protect and feed my children?" said Ranjith Premakumara, 28, rebuilding a guest house on its old foundations just 30 metres from the beach in the southern town of Paiyagala South.

In Thailand, Prime Minister Goran Persson of Sweden - which lost hundreds of people - visited a Buddhist temple turned mortuary with his Norwegian and Finnish counterparts, Kjell Magne Bondevik and Matti Vanhanen.

It houses hundreds of corpses from nearby Khao Lak resort, which forensics experts are trying to identify - crucial for families left without a body to grieve over.

"I'm impressed and I'm also extremely humbled because they're doing a very difficult job here under difficult circumstances," Persson said.

The trio was greeted by angry villagers demonstrating against Thai plans to move the mortuary and forensic operation from the temple to Phuket island, two hours drive to the south.

Nearly 2000 Swedes are dead or unaccounted for. The tsunami looks set to be the greatest national tragedy in two centuries for a country that stayed neutral in the world wars.

Tens of thousands of bodies around the region may never be recovered, worsening the trauma.

In the Indian town of Seruthur, Lakshmi Kolandavelu refuses to believe her husband when he says their two-year-old son, torn from her arms by the waves and missing, is dead and probably buried in a mass grave with three of his four siblings.

"We never found their bodies," she says, shaking her head.

"The sea goddess gave us five children and snatched back four," says her husband.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said the tsunami brought tragedy but also heroism in Sumatra's Aceh province.

"To this day, all of Indonesia is united in tears and deeds," he said.

His government sought at the weekend to reassure US and other foreign troops bringing relief in Aceh - an area suffering a long-running separatist rebellion - that it did not plan to send them home by late March, as one official earlier said.

Mark Collins, head of Aceh operations for relief group AusAID, said things were slowly looking up.

"There has been a great deal of progress," he said. "Immediate needs of foods and shelter are being met."

"We have been very fortunate there has been no widespread outbreak of diarrhoea, or gastro-intestinal diseases so far," he said, suggesting that this was because local people had taken in as many of the homeless as they could to look after them.

Indonesian soldiers fumigated parts of the provincial capital Banda Aceh. "The purpose is to kill the insects, mosquitoes, cockroaches, rats and flies," soldier Dwi Joko said.


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