Taiwan confirms 292 typhoon deaths

TAIPEI: Taiwan's government on Monday confirmed that 292 people were killed and 385 missing after Typhoon Morakot struck the island and caused its worst flooding in half a century earlier this month.

Those still unaccounted for include 311 from the southern village of Hsiaolin, the National Fire Agency said.

With the hope of finding bodies fading, an increasing number of people still hunting for loved ones decided to list them as dead rather than missing.

Relatives in Hsiaolin on Monday decided to halt their search for the corpses of those buried by mud that is three to four stories deep, television stations reported.

At least 45 people were injured as the typhoon lashed the island with a record three metres (118 inches) of rain, submerging houses and streets and destroying bridges more than two weeks ago.

The official death toll previously stood at 163.

President Ma Ying-jeou, whose popularity has sunk to an all-time low since the typhoon over his administration's slow response to the disaster, has said the final death toll could exceed 500, with hundreds buried.

Further complicating reconstruction efforts was an outbreak of suspected swine flu infections in the flooded area. The number of those to have died of the disease in Taiwan rose to five from three, according to the health authorities.

Premier Liu Chao-shiuan ordered all the soldiers mobilised for the clean-up and reconstruction operation to wear protective face masks amid reports that four soldiers had contracted the disease and hundreds of civilian people in the township of Chiatung had developed temperatures.

"Those staying in the emergency shelters, including the homeless and volunteer workers, also need to heighten their vigilance because they have been contacting a lot of people in the aftermath of the typhoon and belong to a high risk group," he said.

The warning came as the government and charity groups pledged to speed up reconstruction.

More than 25,000 people fled their homes because of the typhoon.

While roads are gradually being repaired and some people have returned home, about 6,000 are still living in official and private temporary shelters.

Taiwan's Red Cross Society said it would build up to 1,600 houses within two years for some of the thousands of people left homeless.

The plan is part of a massive reconstruction effort in Taiwan's devastated south. The drive to rebuild has prompted criticism by indigenous groups who may be forced to leave their ancestral homelands in remote mountain areas.

However some potential recipients are uneasy about the plans, Hung Ju-hsuan, a Red Cross Society worker, told AFP.

"As aborigines have a deep attachment to their land, they were divided on the prospect of their new homes," she said.

She said some were refusing to leave their villages despite the devastation caused by Morakot and warnings that such traditional sites are unsuitable for habitation.

In addition to permanent housing, the Red Cross Society and 60 other civilian groups also plan to assemble 1,800 pre-fabricated houses for those in need within two months.

The government, which has been strongly criticised over the crisis, will this week send to parliament a 100 billion Taiwan dollar (3.04 billion US) relief package covering the next three years, it said in a statement.

Floods or mudslides damaged more than 136,400 homes, according to emergency officials, who add that the typhoon has wrought 14.4 billion Taiwan dollars in agriculture damages.