UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan yesterday described the devastation on Indonesia's tsunami-battered Sumatra island as the worst he's ever seen, while authorities there pulled 4,000 new bodies from the rubble bringing the confirmed overall death toll to nearly 150,000.
Twelve days after the tsunami hit, Annan and World Bank president James Wolfensohn flew over the island's west coast in a Singaporean helicopter and then drove to the shattered coastal town of Meulaboh, where families picked through piles of rubble 2m high.
"I have never seen such utter destruction mile after mile," a shaken Annan told reporters afterward. "You wonder where are the people? What has happened to them?"
Relief workers were still trying to come to terms with the scale of the Dec. 26 earthquake and killer waves that hit 11 nations. With tens of thousands still missing and threatened by disease, the UN said the number of dead would keep climbing.
"I think we have to be aware that very, very many of the victims have been swept away and many, many will not reappear," UN humanitarian chief Jan Egeland said in New York. "The 150,000 dead figure is a very low figure. It will be much bigger."
Hardest hit was Sumatra, which was closest to the 9.0-magnitude quake, where all of Indonesia's 100,000 deaths occurred.
The country increased its toll by 4,289 yesterday after uncovering thousands of bodies in and around Meulaboh, which was cut off from the rest of Sumatra for days because roads were swept away and sea jetties destroyed.
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Colin Powell toured stricken areas in Sri Lanka, where more than 30,000 people died, and promised long-term US help for rebuilding an economic recovery.
"Only by seeing it on the ground can you really appreciate what it must have been like on that terrible day," he said.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw toured the Thai holiday destination of Phuket yesterday and indicated that the number of Britons who had died could double from his government's earlier estimate.
After meeting with families of victims, Straw told a news conference that 49 Britons were confirmed dead and 391 were missing and "very likely" to be victims.
While some areas remained scenes of total devastation, other Thai resorts were looking to the future. Cleanup on several beaches is almost complete and tour operators were eager to get back to business.
Efforts accelerated to help survivors in Indonesia, where authorities said two dozen relief camps should be operational within a week. Tens of thousands lack clean drinking water and face the threat of disease.
Muslims in the battered city of Banda Aceh yesterday performed prayers at the main mosque for the first time since it was used as a morgue in the aftermath of the tsunami, sitting cross-logged on its marble floor as the preacher said the disaster may have been punishment from Allah for "forgetting him and his teachings."
The smell of rotting corpses, thousands of which lie uncollected, wafted through the five-domed Baituraman mosque, which was originally built in 1614.
Troops and volunteers have worked through the past week to clear the rubbish from the grounds.
"We Muslims are gathered here today to show the country and the world that we still exist," preacher Din Syamsuddin told around 2,000 worshippers. "We are sad and we are in mourning, but Allah tells us to be optimistic," he said.