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Rescuers Set to Call Off Survivor Search

January 2, 2005

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia (AP) _ With many thousands of people still missing, rescuers in the part of Southeast Asia that suffered most from last weekend’s earthquake and tsunami stood ready to call off their search for survivors. U.S. forces pressed ahead with one of their biggest relief missions ever with the death toll likely to hit 150,000.

Hungry Indonesians welcomed a dozen American Seahawk helicopters delivering biscuits, energy drinks and instant noodles to devastated villages on the west coast of Sumatra, the Indonesian island closest to the epicenter of the world’s largest earthquake in four decades and the first place hit by the walls of water it sent surging across the Indian Ocean.

More than 80,000 were killed on Sumatra, and officials say the toll could surpass 100,000. No survivor has been found for three days.

Relatives of the missing gave agonizing descriptions of their loved ones on television Sunday, clinging to hopes the missing had not been fatally crushed by rubble or taken by the sea.

Officials were pessimistic.

``There is very little chance of finding survivors after seven days,″ Lamsar Sipahutar, the head of Indonesia’s search team. ``We are about to stop the search-and-rescue operations. If you survived the earthquake, you probably were killed by tsunami.″

Elephants were brought in to help remove debris in the ruined provincial capital of Banda Aceh and in southern Thailand, where resorts were destroyed and thousands killed along a world-famous tourist strip near Phuket island.

Around the devastated Indian Ocean rim, $2 billion in promised international aid began to reach survivors. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush will arrive in coming days.

``This trip is to figure out the best possible way logistically for the United States to offer help and also show the heart of our country in this really tragic time,″ Gov. Bush said in Miami before departing.

The American military was mounting its largest operation in southern Asia since the Vietnam War, delivering supplies from the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln stationed off Sumatra and sending a flotilla of Marines and water-purifying equipment to Sri Lanka.

In the wiped-out coastal village of Kuede Teunom, where 8,000 of the 18,000 residents were killed in the disaster, haggard survivors caught bottles of drinking water tossed from a U.S. Navy helicopter.

``The need is desperate. There is nothing left to speak of,″ Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Vorce said.

Four Indonesian navy frigates loaded with supplies arrived off the coast of the fishing village of Meulaboh, one of Aceh’s worst-hit spots. About half the town of 40,000 was destroyed. An Associated Press reporter who visited saw residents stepping over dead bodies to scrounge for food and scavenge pots and pans from destroyed homes.

In India’s devastated Andaman and Nicobar Islands, some villagers said they still had not received any outside help, despite government claims that aid was reaching all affected sites. Officials said most of the island’s jetties had been destroyed, making it difficult for boats to dock.

The first aid-laden Indian naval supply ship arrived in the archipelago Sunday.

On Bambooflat island, a short ferry ride from the islands’ capital Port Blair, about 2,000 families desperate for food and shelter waited for help, and some grew angry. Late Saturday and early Sunday, half a dozen aftershocks, the biggest a magnitude 5.9, jolted the islands, where nearly 4,000 people were missing.

``There is no food, no kerosene, no matches, no rice,″ said rice farmer J.L. Tak. ``Everything is gone and we got nothing from the government.″

India was insisting there still was hope for survivors, though the search was essentially over in Tamil Nadu state, which bore the brunt of the country’s sea surge.

``About 500 to 600 people are on our missing list, but in due course we will be declaring them dead,″ said Veera Shanmuga Moni, a top administrator of Tamil Nadu’s Nagappattinam district.

India’s official death toll topped 9,000 Saturday.

Overall, the death toll surpassed 123,000 and was climbing. U.N. officials said they expected the tally to surpass 150,000, though the final total may never be known. Five million people were homeless.

In Sri Lanka, where almost 30,000 died, flood waters that had added to survivors’ misery receded. About 2,000 people were evacuated from refugee camps near the island nation’s devastated eastern coast Saturday after days of steady rain triggered flash floods.

They returned to government-run centers, and there were no reports of casualties, police said. Hundreds of thousands were living in unsanitary camps, but some returned to homes that escaped serious damage.

Health officials said no medical crisis has yet emerged, though getting clean water and sanitation to hard-hit areas was an urgent priority to prevent outbreaks of disease.

``We need water. Our children are sick, they need food and medicine,″ said Riswan Ali, a resident acting as aid coordinator in the village of Bireun, 60 miles east of Banda Aceh. ``Please, help us.″

The 18,000 refugees there had gotten only one aid delivery, he said.

Washed-out roads, collapsed bridges and fuel shortages have made distribution difficult in Sumatra. Several improvements came Saturday, including the partial opening of Meulaboh’s airstrip, and the clearing of some debris-strewn roads, said John Budd, a UNICEF spokesman in Indonesia.

The agency plans to establish 600 schools to serve 120,000 children in stricken areas of Sumatra, Budd said.

In Thailand, where the death toll approached 5,000, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra visited tsunami-ravaged Phuket island, hoping to prop up a tourism industry that is critical to the country’s economy. He pledged to set up a tsunami early-warning system that scientists say could have saved many lives had it been in place a week ago.

Experts also were concerned about survivors’ emotional health. Thousands were grappling with horrific images of the death and destruction. Health professionals said some survivors cannot sleep or eat, or are afraid of the dark, the water or being alone.

``People are here with their loved ones on holiday ... it’s just the day after Christmas and the next minute their loved ones are gone,″ said Jason Young, a British psychotherapist who set up a makeshift clinic at Phuket City Hall.


Associated Press reporters Denis D. Gray in Kuede Teunom, Indonesia; Miranda Leitsinger in Phuket, Thailand; and Neelesh Misra in Car Nicobar, India, contributed to this report.

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