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Tsunami death toll rises to 76,700
Updated: 2004-12-29 00:15

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia - Cargo planes touched down with aid Wednesday, bearing everything from lentils to water purifiers to help survivors facing the threat of epidemic after this week's quake-tsunami catastrophe. The first Indonesian military teams reached the devastated west coast of Sumatra island, finding thousands of bodies and increasing the death toll across 12 nations to more than 76,700.

Vehicles are strewn around the renowned Nilavelli beach hotel which was destroyed in the tsunami on the east coast town of Trincomalee in Sri Lanka December 29, 2004. [Reuters]
The international Red Cross warned that the toll could eventually surpass 100,000.

Town after town along the Sumatran coast was covered with mud and sea water, with homes flattened or torn apart, an Associated Press reporter saw on a helicopter overflight with the military commander of the island's Aceh province. The only signs of life were a handful of villagers scavenging for food on the beach.

Western Sumatra suffered a double blow in Sunday's disaster, shattered both by the most powerful earthquake in 40 years and perhaps the deadliest tsunami in recorded history, which wreaked destruction across a dozen nations.

"The damage is truly devastating," Maj. Gen. Endang Suwarya said. "Seventy-five percent of the west coast is destroyed and some places it's 100 percent. These people are isolated and we will try and get them help."

The first military teams reached the devastated fishing town of Meulaboh on Sumatra's coast and across the coast they found thousands of bodies, bringing Indonesia's toll to 45,268, with 1,240 reported missing, according to the Health Ministry's official count. That toll was likely to rise ! one official on Tuesday estimated that as many as 10,000 people were dead in Meulaboh alone.

The race was on to try to prevent an outbreak of diseases and curb food shortages among millions of homeless, which the U.N. health agency said could kill as many as the waves and quake. While Sri Lanka said it was getting its first reports of measles and diarrhea, paramedics in southern India began vaccinating 65,000 survivors against cholera, typhoid, hepatitis A and dysentery.

In Sri Lanka's second largest city, the hard-hit southern resort of Galle, refugees from ravaged homes crowded into churches, Buddhist temples and mosques, and food supplies were short.

"Even those people who were not affected can't get food. Nothing is available," said Father Raja Perera, of St. Mary's Roman Catholic church.

Sri Lanka on Wednesday listed more than 22,400 people dead, India close to 7,000 ! with 8,000 missing and feared dead. Thailand put its toll at more than 1,600. A total of more than 300 were killed in Malaysia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, the Maldives, Somalia, Tanzania and Kenya.

From East Africa to southern Asia, chances faded of finding more survivors of Sunday's massive, quake-driven walls of water. Tens of thousands of people were still missing. German Chancellor Gerhardt Schroeder said 1,000 Germans were unaccounted for.

"We have to fear that a number of Germans clearly in the three-digit numbers will be among the dead," Schroeder told reporters. Currently, 26 Germans have been confirmed dead.

"We have little hope, except for individual miracles," Chairman Jean-Marc Espalioux of the Accor hotel group said of the search for thousands of tourists and locals missing from beach resorts of southern Thailand ! including more than 2,000 Scandinavians.

In Sri Lanka, reports of measles and diarrhea were beginning to reach health authorities, causing concern of an epidemic, said Thilak Ranaviraj, the government's top official handling relief efforts. "The most important thing is the quality of water," he said.

Four relief planes arrived in the capital, Colombo, bringing a surgical hospital from Finland, a water purification plant from Germany, doctors and medicine from Japan and aid workers from Britain, the Red Cross said.

Meanwhile, trucks fanned out to deliver bandages, antibiotics, tents, blankets and other supplies to the country's hardest hit areas, the southern and eastern coast. A dozen trucks left the U.N. World Food Program depot in Colombo on Tuesday. The military said a fleet of 64 trucks packed with rice, sugar, tents and other essentials entered Tamil areas Wednesday

But officials in the east said at least four WFP trucks bound for Tamil areas in the north were forcefully diverted by Sinhalese mobs and low-ranking government officials to predominantly Sinhalese areas. Selvi Sachchithanandam, a WFP spokeswoman, declined to comment on the report.

Sri Lanka has been torn for years by a conflict with separatist Tamil rebels who control parts of the north, demanding independence from the mostly-Sinhalese nation.

At Banda Aceh, the wrecked capital of Indonesia's Aceh province, bulldozers dug mass graves for thousands of corpses lining the streets and lawns as authorities hurried to get the dead in the ground.

Supplies ! including 175 tons of rice and 100 doctors ! reached Banda Aceh earlier, but with aid not arriving quickly enough, desperate people in towns across Sumatra stole whatever food they could find, officials said.

Widespread looting also was reported in Thailand's devastated resort islands of Phuket and Phi Phi, where European and Australian tourists left valuables behind in wrecked hotels when they fled ! or were swept away by ! the torrents.

An international airlift was under way to ferry critical aid and medicine to Phuket and to take home shellshocked travelers. Jets from France and Australia were among the first to touch down at the island's airport. Greece, Italy, Germany and Sweden planned similar flights.

The world's biggest reinsurer, Germany's Munich Re, estimated the damage to buildings and foundations in the affected regions would be at least $13.6 billion.

Donations for recovery efforts came in from all parts of the globe.

The governments of the United States, Australia and Japan pledged a combined $100 million while taxi drivers in Singapore put donation tins in their cars and volunteers in Thailand text-messaged aquaintances to give blood to the Red Cross.

In Thailand, Thai rescue workers helped by teams sent from Sweden, Germany and Taiwan rescuers combed the beaches and islands Wednesday for missing tourists and locals swept away by earthquake-powered tidal waves. Bodies were still washing up on several beaches three days after the waves struck.

Although the toll was expected to soar, a total of 473 foreigners of 36 nationalities were confirmed killed, the Interior Ministry said. They were among thousands of Western and Asian holiday-makers packing hotels and bungalows during the height of the tourist season when killer waves struck Sunday.

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