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Wednesday, Dec 29, 2004

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Thousands missing, millions homeless

BANDA ACEH (INDONESIA), DEC. 28. Displaced and hungry islanders in Indonesia on Tuesday looted stores following explosive tidal waves that the United Nations said may be history's costliest natural disaster.

A dozen nations in a band of destruction from South-East Asia to Africa tallied corpses at tropical beaches, devastated villages and choked hospital morgues — with 10,000 dead found in a single Indonesian town. The overall toll on Tuesday doubled over the previous day.

Thousands of people were missing, and millions remained homeless.

Biggest relief effort

Aid agencies feared malaria and cholera may add to the toll from Sunday's massive quake-sparked waves, and mounted what U.N. officials said would be the world's biggest relief effort. ``This is unprecedented,'' said Yvette Stevens, an emergency relief coordinator of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. But help was not arriving fast enough for Indonesia's Sumatra island, where residents turned to looting to find food.

``There is no help, it is each person for themselves here,'' a district official told el-Shinta radio from the island's devastated western coast.

Emergency workers who reached the northern tip of Sumatra island found that 10,000 people had been killed in a single town, Meulaboh, said the Social Affairs Ministry.

Sunday's earthquake under the Indian Ocean shot concussions of water onto coastlines from Indonesia to Somalia, drowning thousands. Almost a third of the dead were children, the U.N. children's agency estimated. About 19,000 were killed in Indonesia and its Vice-President estimated his country had as many as 25,000 victims.

Sumatra island was nearest the epicentre of Sunday's monstrous quake — the world's biggest in 40 years — and rescuers there battled to reach isolated coasts and dig into rubble of destroyed houses to seek survivors and retrieve the dead.

Hazardous future

The disaster could be history's costliest, with ``many billions of dollars'' of damage, said U.N. Undersecretary Jan Egeland, who is in charge of emergency relief coordination. Millions face a hazardous future because of polluted drinking water and a lack of health services, he said.

Officials in Thailand and Indonesia conceded that immediate public warnings of gigantic waves could have saved lives. The only known warning issued by Thai authorities reached resort operators when it was too late.

— AP

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