updated 12/28/2004 9:57:33 AM ET 2004-12-28T14:57:33

The tsunami-battered Maldives on Tuesday indefinitely postponed national elections because of the devastation caused by the massive earthquake-generated waves that hit the archipelago, and an official said the cost of the damage exceed the nation's annual gross domestic product.

The government also increased the death toll to 55, including two British tourists. Government spokesman Mohammed Hussain Shareef said 69 people, including a third British tourist, were missing.

The government had previously reported that 43 people — including one Briton who had a heart attack when he saw a tidal wave coming toward him — had been killed.

Death toll expected to rise
Shareef predicted the death toll would climb further as authorities re-established contact with outlying islands. The country has a population of 280,000.

The Maldives, a collection of 1,192 low-lying atolls, was among 11 countries hit by earthquake-triggered tidal waves that swept across the Indian Ocean on Sunday, killing about 40,000 people.

The parliamentary elections, which could ultimately result in a challenge to the 26-year rule of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, had been scheduled for this Friday.

But the breakdown in communications and the evacuation of thousands of people from inundated islands made a vote impossible, Shareef said.

It might be months before the vote was held, but the government would act in accordance with a constitution specifying a deadline for swearing in a new parliament, he said.

Meantime, chief government spokesman Ahmed Shaheed estimated the economic cost of the disaster at hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars.

The Maldives's annual gross domestic product, which relies heavily on tourism and fishing, is $660 million.

Gains ‘can disappear in ... a few minutes’
"It won't be surprising if the cost exceeds our GDP," he said. "In the last few years we made great progress in our standard of living — the United Nations recognized this. Now we see this can disappear in a few days, a few minutes."

The tsunami, which covered some small islands in several feet of water, has left 37 of the Maldives's roughly 200 inhabited islands temporarily unsuitable for human habitation, polluting drinking water and ruining food supplies as well as damaging communications and power generation equipment, Shareef said.

"On some islands there isn't a structure left standing," he said.

Twenty of the country's 80-odd tourist resorts have sustained serious damage that could force their closure for weeks or two to three months, he said.

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