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. One year on, tsunami toll remains elusive
BANDA ACEH, Indonesia (AFP) Dec 23, 2005
Bustari Mansyur shrugs wearily when asked how many bodies his workers retrieved from the mangled wreckage of last December's tsunami. The question seems irrelevant.

"There were so many bodies, we could not count," concedes the chairman of the Aceh chapter of the Indonesian Red Cross, which took on an unofficial role as body-counter in the days after the disaster.

"On the first, second, third day -- there were a lot of bodies. We don't know how many -- the government, until now, does not know."

The December 26 tsunami slammed mercilessly into coastlines around the Indian Ocean, resulting in devastation so complete that skeletons are still being retrieved as the grim cleanup labours on a year afterwards.

The most widely accepted estimates of the final toll add up to around 220,000. But significantly different figures are still being offered: the Roman Catholic charity Caritas Internationalis suggested Wednesday that closer to 400,000 lives were claimed.

Entire villages were obliterated -- leaving no one to report deaths -- while buses and cars were sucked out to sea. Bodies were buried rapidly without identification amid fears that a second wave of disease would hit survivors.

Records from many wiped out areas, already mired in poverty and stricken by deadly conflicts, were frequently patchy at best.

In Indonesia, the Jakarta-based spokesman for the Red Cross told AFP that it planned to release a report later this month on its work in Aceh, which would include a toll. Finalising one, however, is no longer a priority.

"We are continuing our tracing and mailing program consistently but our focus is now to rebuild Aceh and move beyond body count," Hadi Kuswoyo said.

In a June report, the Red Cross said 131,029 were killed and 37,066 missing. Satkorlak, the government agency tasked with coordinating responses to disasters, puts the number of dead at 130,013, but has the same missing figure.

A post-tsunami census carried out in devastated Aceh province, meanwhile, found that 4,031,589 people were now living in Indonesia's westernmost province, down by 238,411 on the figure compiled before national elections in October 2004, though officials drew no conclusions.

In Sri Lanka, estimates of the dead range from 21,000 to 41,000 people and officials admit that double-counting and confusion immediately after the disaster may have distorted figures.

Police records show that 20,936 people were killed and police maintain that only 421 people are still reported missing. Aid agencies however cite a figure of 31,000, based on a report from the social services ministry.

Secretary to the ministry of public security, Tilak Ranaviraja, gives a figure of 41,000 but says the number could be even higher.

Official records in India say the final death toll is 10,749, with 5,640 still missing, mostly on the Andaman islands but figures from different agencies there have also been conflicting.

Thailand has an official toll of 5,395 dead and 2,817 missing, but these figures have yet to be reconciled with the work of a Disaster Victim Identification unit, which has been steadily scratching names off a list of missing and returning remains to families.

The DVI says it has 673 names left on its list of the missing, but it has 805 bodies or parts of bodies that still need identification.

Colonel Khemarin Hassiri, the police official heading the forensics effort, said the tsunami probably killed many who were in the country illegally -- such as workers from Myanmar -- who were never reported missing.

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