Accessibility links

Breaking News

Indonesian Official Indicates Tsunami Death Toll May Rise


A senior Indonesian official says the government is willing to negotiate anything except independence with separatist rebels in tsunami-devastated Aceh province. The official also indicated that the death toll from last month's disaster may go higher as officials begin to focus on the giant task of rebuilding the devastated province.

Indonesia's senior coordinator of relief efforts in Aceh province says authorities have buried the bodies of more than 90,000 victims of the December 26 tsunami.

Welfare Minister Alwi Shihab told reporters Saturday that an estimated 100,000 people are still missing, indicating that the number of victims in Indonesia, currently about 166,000, may rise further. He added that some missing people may have left the province or are in refugee camps.

"The real number (of deaths), nobody knows except God," he said.

Mr. Shihab says his government is setting up an agency to watch for corruption in disbursing the billions of dollars pledged for rebuilding Aceh. He says representatives of relief organizations could join the agency.

Mr. Shihab reiterated a call by the Indonesian government for rebels who have been waging a 30-year war for independence in Aceh to resume peace negotiations.

"We are willing and we strongly urge those who are still carrying arms to sit down with us, to reconcile.," he said. "We will entertain any request short of independence."

Aceh has been under emergency military and civilian measures since a short-lived cease-fire collapsed two years ago.

The head of the Indonesian military earlier said his forces in the past two weeks killed more than 100 rebels, despite an informal cease-fire declared by both sides following the tsunami. Rebel leaders subsequently accused the government of acting in bad faith.

Both Mr. Shihab and the head of the Indonesian Red Cross said they had no knowledge of any such deaths.

Meanwhile, relief efforts continue in Aceh, as workers seek to supply food, water and medical care to the half million people displaced by the tsunami. Volunteers continued to recover hundreds of bodies a day from the rubble.

The Indonesian military Saturday was completing the first of many temporary bridges needed to restore links between the provincial capital of Banda Aceh and the hard-hit western coast.

Military commander Ryamizado Ryacudu told VOA that the bridges will allow land convoys to carry large amounts of aid to the area, which for now is being supplied by helicopters and ship-based landing craft.

General Ryacudu say 53 bridges and more than 50 kilometers of road were destroyed on the highway to Meulaboh, 200 kilometers away. He says it will take up to three months to open a temporary road to isolated towns and fishing villages in the region, where as much as two-thirds of the population was killed by the tsunami.