Tsunami death toll rockets to 114,000
BANDA ACEH, Indonesia - The death toll from last weekend's earthquake-tsunami catastrophe rose to more than 114,000 on Thursday as Indonesia uncovered more and more dead from ravaged Sumatra island, where pilots dropped food to remote villages still unreachable by rescue workers. A false alarm that new killer waves were about to hit sparked panic in India, Sri Lanka and Thailand.
Indonesia, with around 80,000 dead, was the worst hit, followed by Sri Lanka, India and Thailand. The total across 12 nations in southern Asia and East Africa was likely to rise, with thousands still missing and fears that disease could bring a new wave of deaths.
Tens of thousands of residents fled coasts in India, Sri Lanka and Thailand after warnings that a new tsunami was about to strike after new aftershocks hit the Indian Ocean Thursday.
India issued a tsunami warning at midday, but then hours later its science minister, Kapil Sibal, went on television to announce the warning was incorrect and based on information received from a U.S. research firm.
Fears of a new tsunami were "unscientific, hogwash and should be discarded," Sibal said.
Still, the alert sparked panic among people traumatized by Sunday's devastation.
"We got into a truck and fled," said 40-year-old Gandhimathi of Nagappattinam in India's Tamil Nadu state, who said authorities told her to leave her home. "We took only a few clothes and left behind all of our belongings, everything we had."
Sri Lanka's military later told residents there to be vigilant but not to panic, while coastal villagers climbed onto rooftops or sought high ground. "There is total confusion here," said Rohan Bandara in the coastal town of Tangalle.
Tsunami sirens in southern Thailand sent people dashing from beaches, but only small waves followed the alarms.
An estimated 5.7 magnitude aftershock was recorded in seas northwest of Indonesia's Sumatra island by the Hong Kong observatory Thursday morning, along with earlier, overnight quakes at India's Andaman and Nicobar islands. But a 5.7 quake would be about 1,000 times less powerful than Sunday's, and probably would have "negligible impact," said geologist Jason Ali of University of Hong Kong.
The false alarm highlighted the lack of an organized tsunami warning system in the Indian Ocean region ！ which experts have already said may have worsened the crisis after Sunday's 9.0 magnitude quake hit off Sumatra's coast, sending a massive wave racing at 500 mph across the Indian Ocean.
Sibal, the Indian science minister, said Thursday's warning was based on information from a U.S. research group that "claimed they have some sensors and equipment through which they suggest there was a possibility of an earthquake."
He did not elaborate on how the information was incorrect.
Meanwhile, military ships and planes rushed to get desperately needed aid to Sumatra's ravaged coast. Countless corpses strewn on the streets rotted under the tropical sun causing a nearly unbearable stench.
Food drops began along the coast, mostly of instant noodles and medicines, with some of the areas "hard to reach because they are surrounded by cliffs," said Budi Aditutro, head of the government's relief team.
Government institutions in Aceh province, the territory on Sumatra's northern tip, have ceased to function and basic supplies such as fuel have almost run out, forcing even ambulances to ration gasoline.
On the streets of Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, fights have broken out over packets of noodles dropped from military vehicles.
"I believe the frustration will be growing in the days and weeks ahead," U.N. Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland said.
The United States, India, Australia and Japan have formed an international coalition to coordinate worldwide relief and reconstruction efforts, President Bush (news - web sites) announced.
"We will prevail over this destruction," Bush said from his Texas ranch Wednesday.
The number of deaths in Indonesia stood at about 52,000. Authorities there said that did not include a full count from Sumatra's west coast, and UNICEF (news - web sites) estimated the toll for that country alone could be 80,000.
Sri Lanka reported 24,700 dead, India more than 7,300 and Thailand around 2,400 ！ though that country's prime minister said he feared the toll would go to 6,800. A total of more than 300 were killed in Malaysia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, the Maldives, Somalia, Tanzania and Kenya.
The disaster struck a band of the tropics that not only is heavily populated but attracts tourists from all corners. Throughout the world, people sought word of missing relatives, from small-town Sri Lankan fishermen to Europeans on sand-and-sun holidays.
On hundreds of Web sites, the messages were brief but poignant: "Missing: Christina Blomee in Khao Lak," or simply, "Where are you?"
But even as hope for the missing dwindled, survivors continued to turn up.
A 2-year-old Swedish boy was reunited with his father days after the toddler was found alone on a roadside in Thailand's southern beach resort island of Phuket. In Sri Lanka, a lone fisherman named Sini Mohammed Sarfudeen was rescued Wednesday by an air force helicopter crew after clinging to his wave-tossed boat for three days.
Rescue workers on Thursday plied the dense forests of India's remote Andaman and Nicobar islands ！ an archipelago just to the northwest of the quake's epicenter ！ where authorities fear as many as 10,000 more people may be buried in mud and thick vegetation. Many hungry villagers were surviving on coconut milk, rescuers said.
Mohammad Yusef, 60, a fisherman who fled his village and was holed up at a Catholic church in the territory's capital Port Blair along with about 800 others, said all 15 villages on the coast of Car Nicobar island had been destroyed.
"There's not a single hut which is standing," he told The Associated Press. "Everything is gone. Most of the people have gone up to the hills and are afraid to come down," Yusef said.
Many villagers had not eaten for two days and said that crocodiles had washed ashore during the disaster, compounding the horror of more than 50 aftershocks since Sunday's quake.