Thailand continued the grisly task yesterday of exhuming tsunami victims for DNA testing to try to confirm the identities of more than 5,300 people killed, nearly half of them foreign tourists.
Authorities repeated assur-ances that all the bodies they had of tsunami victims, including some which had already been buried, would be DNA tested amid fears that people had been buried without proper identification.
Some bodies had also been cremated, but only after being positively identified.
A disaster victim identification center meanwhile opened on the resort island of Phuket to begin matching DNA data.
The interior ministry said yesterday that 5,309 people were confirmed dead, including 1,728 Thais, 1,240 foreigners and 2,341 bodies that could not be identified by nationality.
The number of missing was put at 3,370, including 1,102 foreigners.
Many of those missing would likely be confirmed dead with time, Interior Minister Bhokin Balakula said.
The final death toll may change slightly, Balakula said.
"But if we match the DNA tests of the dead and their relatives, we will likely find that the missing people are the unidentified dead," he said.
Thailand at the weekend made a dramatic 10-fold increase in the number of corpses listed as having unknown national origin, saying that initial identifications had proved unreliable.
Bhokin said bodies of up to 800 people who had already been buried were being exhumed and any whose DNA samples had not been appropriately taken would be tested and fitted with a microchip containing the data, and then placed in refrigerated containers.
"The figure was between 600 and 800" bodies to be exhumed, Bhokin said. "There were many bodies and we could not keep them at the temple so we had to bury them."
DNA sampling would continue apace for another two weeks, he said.
The tedious, time-consuming identification process could take several months, however, as experts sift through thousands of pieces of genetic data, not only from the victims but from relatives who must give samples that scientists will try to match up to identify the bodies.
Australian police Inspector Jeff Emery, who is the chief of the disaster victim identification center, said it could take nine months or longer to complete the process, which foreign governments are watching closely.
"This is a very, very large operation, a large number of people have died. The process must be very thorough," he said. "We cannot make mistakes in regards to identification."
Some 400 forensics personnel from at least 30 countries were in Thailand, and Emery said they were considering working 24 hours a day.
Meanwhile, clean-up efforts gathered pace in Phuket and neighboring Phang Nga, the province worst hit by the giant waves, which were caused by a massive earthquake off Indonesia on Dec. 26.
Parts of Phang Nga were so awash with wreckage and debris after the disaster that elephants were brought in to clear land.
Roads have been cleared, piles of sand and mud leveled and debris bulldozed into stacks.
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