Workers from Indonesia to India rushed to bury corpses yesterday as cargo planes touched down with promised aid -- from lentils to water purifiers -- to help the region cope with its tsunami catastrophe. The death toll soared to 76,887.
Chances faded of finding more survivors of Sunday's massive, quake-driven walls of water -- probably the deadliest in history. With tens of thousands of people still missing, the toll in nearly a dozen affected countries was certain to climb further.
"We have little hope, except for individual miracles," Accor hotel group chairman Jean-Marc Espalioux said of the search for thousands of tourists and locals missing from beach resorts in southern Thailand -- including 2,000 Scandinavians.
Millions were left homeless in the disaster, contending with hunger and the threat of disease, which the UN health agency said could double the toll.
On the Indonesian island of Sumatra, nearest the Indian Ocean epicenter of Sunday's calamitous 9.0-magnitude quake that triggered the tsunamis, bulldozers prepared to dig graves for thousands of corpses lining the streets and lawns of provincial capital Banda Aceh.
With the threat of disease on the rise and few ways to identify the dead, there was no choice but to get the bodies under ground, military Colonel Achmad Yani Basuki said.
"We will start digging the mass graves today," he said.
Indonesia's health ministry said thousands more bodies were found, raising to more than 32,000 the number of confirmed deaths on Sumatra, the territory closest to the quake.
Sri Lanka listed more than 21,700 people dead, India close to 4,500 -- with 8,000 missing and feared dead. Thailand put its toll at more than 1,500. More than 300 were killed in Malaysia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, the Maldives, Somalia, Tanzania and Kenya.
Wildlife enthusiasts in Sri Lanka noted their surprise in seeing no evidence of large-scale deaths of animals, suggesting they had safely made it to high ground.
"Maybe what we think is true, that animals have a sixth sense," said Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne, whose Jetwing Eco Holidays runs a hotel in the Yala National Park.
Aid groups struggled to mount what they described as the largest relief operation the world has seen, and to head off the threat of cholera and malaria epidemics that could break out where water supplies are polluted with bodies and debris.
In Sri Lanka, four planes arrived in the capital 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.
Supplies that included 175 tonnes of rice and 100 doctors reached Sumatra's Banda Aceh. But with aid not arriving quickly enough, desperate people in towns across Sumatra stole whatever food they could find, officials said.
Widespread looting was also 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 repatriate 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.