Indonesia declaring mass graves

PADANG: Villages buried in landslides triggered by last week's earthquake may be declared mass graves, Indonesian authorities said Wednesday as relief agencies battled to reach remote areas.

Up to 400 people are believed to have been buried alive when hillsides collapsed in the 7.6-magnitude quake and obliterated four adjacent villages in Padang Pariaman district of Sumatra island.

West Sumatra Governor Gamawan Fauzi said most of the dead would probably never be found or would be in such a state of decay that it would be better to leave them where they were.

"If after umpteen days the bodies are broken, if we dig them up probably their arms will break off, their legs will break off, it's no good," he told reporters in Padang, the provincial capital and worst-hit city.

"If the community is willing, from a religious angle it is okay not to rebury them. So that area would be designated a mass grave."

The official death toll from last Wednesday's quake stands at 704 but the Red Cross believes the final number will be more than 3,000, with hundreds of bodies still interred in the debris. Related article: Villages reduced to mass graves

Relief agencies are racing against time to get aid to farming villages in the rugged coastal hinterland that are still cut off a week after the massive earthquake devastated parts of Sumatra.

Around half a million people could be homeless, according to estimates by the United Nations and Red Cross based on the official figure of about 100,000 homes destroyed.

UN humanitarian response coordinator Rachel Lavy said there was no shortage of aid supplies, and more was on the way aboard US warships that were expected to arrive off Sumatra by Friday.

A US aid coordinator said a military transport plane with 45 tonnes of supplies had been delayed and would arrive on Thursday.

Meanwhile a US military field hospital with a capacity to treat up to 400 people had been established in central Padang and was due to receive its first patients on Wednesday.

Indonesian Disaster Management Agency spokesman Priyadi Kardono said helicopters made six aid drops to isolated villages on Tuesday and more flights would be made on Wednesday.

"Aid supplies are sufficient... though we welcome more. We have enough tents and about 19,000 tonnes of rice which is enough to last four months," he said.

Lavy said the biggest challenge was distribution, especially in the mountain areas.

"Agencies are still reporting pockets where they found people who say they haven't received any assistance," she told AFP.

There were no signs of disease outbreaks, despite shortages of drinking water and the hundreds of decaying bodies that remain buried beneath the rubble.

"We're not seeing any rise in the reported incidence of communicable diseases, and that's a very good thing," Lavy said.

Provincial authorities were spraying disinfectant on the ruins of buildings where bodies are known to be interred.

Governor Fauzi denied that any areas had yet to receive aid, and blamed local authorities for any delays.

"Where are the blockages in distribution? If it is blocked, probably it's between the local districts and the people," he said.

"Just imagine, if 100,000 homes collapse, that's 500,000 people (homeless). If there are six people who aren't happy, 10 people who aren't happy, don't make that the news headline. Related article: Shoddy buildings worsened disaster

"We're taking care of 500,000 people in a very short time."