Fri, Dec 31, 2004 - Page 1 News List

Death toll climbs, disease threatens

TSUNAMI While people fled after false reports of new tidal waves, the real threat to the stricken areas is from disease and shortages of food and other supplies

AP , Banda Aceh, Indonesia

Residents fled coasts in India, Sri Lanka and Thailand, heeding hollow warnings of new tsunamis yesterday, as pilots in Indonesia dropped food to remote villages yet to be visited by outsiders four days after the region's quake-and-tsunami disaster. The Red Cross feared the death toll would surpass 100,000.

Surveys of the swath of tropical Asia struck by Sunday's 9.0 earthquake and catastrophic tsunamis were gaining ground, with relief workers still uncovering scenes of flattened villages and survivors living on coconuts.

The death toll topped 84,000, with Indonesia worst affected, followed by Sri Lanka, India and Thailand. With tens of thousands still missing, that number was certain to grow, amid fears that disease could bring a new wave of deaths.

The Indian government issued a tsunami warning about midday yesterday following aftershocks in the Indian Ocean region, prompting tens of thousands to flee the southeastern coast, although there were no signs of turbulent seas.

"We got into a truck and fled," said 40-year-old Gandhimathi of Nagappattinam in 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 coastal 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 Sumatra by the Hong Kong observatory yesterday morning, along with earlier 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 "negligable impact," said geologist Jason Ali of University of Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, military ships and planes rushed to get desperately needed aid to the ravaged coast of Sumatra, the Indonesian island closest to Sunday's quake. 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 areas "hard to reach because they are surrounded by cliffs," said government relief team chief Budi Aditutro.

On the streets of Banda Aceh, a provincial capital in Sumatra, 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," UN 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, US President George W. Bush 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 estimated the toll for that country alone could be 80,000.

Sri Lanka reported 22,800 dead, India more than 7,300 and Thailand 1,800 -- 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.

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