Tsunami toll up; powers agree to freeze debt

Agence France Presse

Banda Aceh, January 8:

Thousands of more tsunami deaths recorded on the tip of Sumatra brought the death toll to over 156,000 as the world’s top economic powers agreed to freeze the debts of disaster-hit countries to free up money for the massive reconstruction effort.

Two days after Indonesia hosted a global summit on the catastrophe, an array of leaders headed to second worst-hit Sri Lanka where a long-running ethnic war has cast a pall over relief efforts. “We came to listen and learn today, Mr Wolfensohn and I... and that is what we did,” said UN Secretary General Kofi Annan as he toured tsunami-ravaged areas of the island with World Bank president James Wolfensohn. Annan, who has appealed for nearly a billion dollars immediately to save survivors left bereft by the killer waves, pledged support for reconstruction in Sri Lanka. “This is a beautiful country but I am sorry for the people who suffered this destruction. (The UN) will try to reconstruct it as much as possible,” he said after a helicopter tour of the island’s battered eastern seaboard.

Indonesia revised down its death toll to 104,055 today, from a figure of 107,039 given earlier in the day, the social affairs ministry said, blaming the mistake on overlapping tallies from differrent districts. The Indonesian and US militaries have been racing against time to reach survivors in the province, parts of which are so remote injured people were trickling in for their first treatment almost two weeks after the tragedy.

Up to 30 of the hospital’s 100 doctors and 10 per cent of its nurses are listed as missing, and virtually all the others failed to show up to work when the hospital reopened.

Aid groups complained today that dignitaries flying in to visit the tsunami-devastated coast in recent days have choked the region’s tiny main airport and hampered relief supplies.

A stream of foreign dignitaries — among them the foreign ministers of Japan, Britain, Canada, Germany and Norway — was visiting Thailand to witness the scene of the tsunami disaster there, with efforts still underway to find submerged corpses and identify hundreds of bodies. Tokyo will send about 1,000 military personnel to Indonesia in the country’s biggest overseas deployment since World War II to help victims of the disaster, an official said. Spain will also contribute by next week sending three aircraft, a navy vessel and 500 troops to support relief efforts in Indonesia, media reports said.

Meanwhile the Group of Seven world’s leading industrialised countries agreed to support the suspension of debt payments by countries affected by the disaster, Britain said. The freeze would apply to bilateral debt between countries, rather than debt owed to institutions, although the G7 also called on the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to assess the victim nations’ needs. The proposal by the group would be put to all creditor nations at a meeting of the Paris Club in the French capital next Wednesday, according to Britain, which holds the rotating G7 presidency. On the battered southeastern coast of India, residents from Akkaraipettai are spending their days emptily amid the ruins of a village where they say half of the 500 students at the local school died. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh today arrived at the devastated Andaman islands, where at least 1,205 people died, to reassure traumatised inhabitants life will return to normal.

Aid efforts have been complicated in the two worst-hit areas, Aceh and Sri Lanka, which have both been ravaged for years by separatist insurgencies.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said that he was worried that aid workers could get caught in the crossfire between the Indonesian military (TNI) and separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM).