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ASIA: Region Braces for Aftershocks, Tsunami Deaths Cross 15,000

Ranjit Devraj

NEW DELHI, Dec 27 2004 (IPS) - Fresh tremors Monday prompted scientists to warn people living around the Bay of Bengal to stay inland from the coasts devastated by Sunday’s tsunamis, which have killed more than 15,000 people in South and South-east Asia.

The death toll is expected to rise further as the extent of the disaster sinks in, casting a pall over yearend celebrations across the region.

Disaster teams have bucked down to work in the countries hit by the tsunamis that in some cases reached 10 metres high – southern India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia and the Maldives.

‘’We recorded fresh tremors with a magnitude of 6.0 on the Richter scale and have issued warnings to people to stay at least two kilometres away from the coasts,’’ A K Shukla, director of the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) inland, also told IPS.

For their part, Indonesian officials said more than 60 aftershocks have been recorded as of Monday morning.

Shukla warned of a series of aftershocks following Sunday’s twin earthquakes. The first, measuring 8.5 on the Richter, struck off Aceh province in Indonesia’s Sumatra island and was followed by another of slightly lesser intensity near the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which lie 300 km to the north of Sumatra and 1,200 km east of Chennai, India.

However, the U.S. Geological Survey spoke of a single earthquake registered west of Sumatra and measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale Sunday.

News reports on Monday quoted S B Deol, police chief on the Andaman and Nicobar islands, which have a population of 45,000 people, as saying 3,000 people have been confirmed dead.

The overall death count in India stood at more than 4,200 as of 0900 GMT. Elsewhere in the countries around the Bay of Bengal, Sri Lanka’s death toll was at more than 5,800 people. The Indonesian government put the number of its dead at 4,448 people, most of them in the capital of Aceh, closest to the epicentre of the quake.

Tsunamis triggered by the undersea quakes rolled across the Bay of Bengal to pummel the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka.

As of Monday afternoon, Thailand, whose tourist beaches turned from holiday resorts into scenes of death and destruction, reported 839 deaths, Malaysia 44, the Maldives 32 and Bangladesh two.

India and Sri Lanka are not covered by the United States’ Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre, which might have warned coastal communities in these countries of tsunamis.

Indian scientists and administrators said they were caught completely by surprise. ‘’This is a new phenomenon for us and although we had indications, we were just not prepared for a tsunami,’’ said R S Dattatreyam of the IMD. The same applies to adjacent Sri Lanka, which lies just off the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

‘’In India, tsunamis are not a well-studied subject. It’s such a rare phenomenon that at a national level no assessment has been done so far to mark the coastal villages and ports that are vulnerable to this phenomenon,’’ said Mihir Bhatt, director of Disaster Mitigation Institute.

Indian authorities began Monday a massive rescue and relief operation covering coastal Tamil Nadu and including Sri Lanka. The cabinet went into session to thrash out a strategy to cope with the aftermath of one of the worst natural disasters to hit the southern part of the peninsula in recent times.

Already four Indian naval ships loaded with supplies and helicopters have been dispatched to Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital while another smaller fleet was headed for the Maldives.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has launched a preliminary appeal for 7.5 million Swiss francs to assist some 500,000 people and bring immediate support to relief operations of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and other countries in the region.

One million Swiss francs has already been released from the Federation’s Disaster Relief Emergency Fund and locally Red Cross teams in Sri Lanka and India have helped evacuate survivors, dispense first aid and provided emergency relief materials such as tents, blankets and food.

A Red Cross spokesman said the International Federation will send medical supplies from Copenhagen, Denmark for 100,000 people into Sri Lanka, the country hardest hit by the disaster.

Additionally medicines to treat up to 2,000 possible cases of diarrhoeal disease will also be part of the shipment.

‘’Basic needs for victims of the disaster are shelter, tents, blankets, clean water, food and family utensils and mosquito nets. An important part of the operation will also be tracing lost relatives,’’ said Simon Missiri, head of the Federation’s Asia Pacific Department in Geneva.

Villages along a wide stretch of coast appeared the worst hit by the tsunami, which killed over 4,850 people and displaced at least a million others, said Sri Lankan officials and a pro-Tamil rebels website, reporting on the toll in both areas controlled by the government and by the rebels.

‘’It is a huge tragedy and it is unfolding all the time,’’ Lalith Weerathunga, secretary to the prime minister was quoted as saying. ‘’But the good thing is that we are now reaching the people, and telling them we are there to help,’’ he added.

Both the government and the LTTE have called for urgent international aid to help deal with the island nation’s worst natural calamity in living memory. (END/IPS/AP/IP/DV/PR/WD/RDR-JS/JS/04)

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