Asia tsunami death toll passes 150,000
Two weeks after a tsunami slammed into coastlines around the Indian Ocean, thousands of bodies were still being pulled out of the mud in remote villages, as the official death toll from the catastrophe rose above 150,000.
"It is normal after a catastrophe like this nature to have some disease, but they are under control," WHO Director-General Dr. Lee Jong-wook said in Sri Lanka. The U.N. agency has warned that disease could put as many as 150,000 survivors "at extreme risk" — doubling the disaster's toll.
In Sri Lanka on Saturday, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan toured the coastal city of Hambantota, where hundreds of shoppers at an outdoor market were swept to their deaths when the massive waves hit on Dec. 26. The U.N. chief told reporters he was formulating ideas on how to respond to the disaster.
Sir Lanka, where more than 30,000 people were killed and 800,000 are homeless, was the second stop on Annan's tour of nations afflicted by the worst natural calamity in modern times.
"I have never seen such utter destruction mile after mile," he said after a helicopter flight Friday over the western coast of Indonesia's Sumatra island. "You wonder where are the people? What has happened to them?"
Indonesia on Saturday raised its estimated death toll by more than 2,700 to 104,055, pushing the overall count to 150,578. Indonesia's toll has risen sharply in recent days as teams of rescuers recover bodies from previously inaccessible regions, many on the western coast of northern Sumatra, close to the epicenter of the magnitude-9.0 quake.
Indonesia's Ministry of Social Affairs also raised its number of those left homeless by more than 100,000 to 655,000.
The toll of those missing was on the rise as well: close to 5,000 in Sri Lanka and 10,000 in Indonesia. Officials said some people trying to find loved ones were only now reporting them as missing.
"First the people tried to find them among the dead, then went around the hospitals. Now they are coming to us," said K.G. Wijesiri at Sri Lanka's National Disaster Management Center.
World governments, led by Australia and Germany, have pledged nearly $4 billion in aid — the biggest ever relief package. The world's richest nations have also agreed that debt repayments for tsunami-devastated countries should be frozen, Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown said. The seven leading industrial nations, or G-7, will seek agreement from all creditors at the next meeting of the Paris Club on Wednesday.
Coordinating the aid was becoming a challenge, with some humanitarian groups in Indonesia's hard-hit Aceh province saying that the stream of dignitaries flying into the tiny airport was hampering aid deliveries.
"It slows things down," said Maj. Murad Khan, a spokesman for Pakistan's Tsunami Relief Task Force. A 220-person team of Pakistani military doctors and civilian engineers was rerouted to the east Sumatran city of Medan, where they hired trucks to make the 15-hour drive to Banda Aceh — only to be turned back by the Indonesian army.
"In Medan we were hearing that (Secretary of State) Colin Powell was there and that's why we couldn't get here," Khan said.
Singapore, for its part, flew a mobile air traffic control tower to Banda Aceh's airport to help speed up deliveries of emergency supplies.
Around the devastated Indonesian town of Lhok Nga, convoys of trucks were dumping debris and rubble from the town in a previously upscale neighborhood and soldiers continued to pick through the wreckage hunting for bodies. An elephant also was helping move the debris.
Rice farmer Mohamed Amin, 45, was walking along the road with his wife and one of his daughters with sacks of rice and noodles on their heads — after traveling for three days on foot from their shattered village to pick up food. They said there was nowhere for relief helicopters to land in their village.
Near the road a huge barge, about the size of a football field, was lying on its side 500 feet from the coast. Close to it were tugs that apparently were pulling it when the wave struck.
On the road along the Sumatran coast, dozens of Indonesian soldiers were heading to a military base amid fears that Aceh rebels could get their hands on weapons left there as soldiers fled from the tsunami. Rebels have been fighting since 1976 for an independent homeland in Aceh, leaving thousands dead.