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Hope fades for 6,000 missing foreigners

Hope was fading Saturday that any of more than 6,000 foreigners still missing after last Sunday's tsunami would be found alive.
A Patong Beach nightclub popular with foreign tourists stands nearly empty during cleanup efforts Sunday.Vinai Dithajohn / EPA via Sipa Press
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

With thousands of decomposing bodies piled up in a Buddhist temple that has been converted to a temporary morgue on Thailand's southern coast, hope was fading Saturday that any of more than 6,000 foreigners still missing after last Sunday's tsunami would be found alive.

The hardest-hit area in Thailand now appears to be Khao Lak, north of Phuket island, a popular spot for families with children, particularly Scandinavians. Another 1,600 bodies, most believed to be foreigners, were collected and brought Saturday from Khao Lak to the temple at Takua Pa. Many were so bloated and disfigured that identification would be nearly impossible, said witnesses at the scene interviewed by telephone.

Thai authorities said Saturday that 4,812 people, including 2,230 foreigners, were confirmed dead in Thailand. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said that toll could reach 10,000.

In a globalized tragedy that struck tourists as well as residents, the hardest-hit country outside the tsunami zone was Sweden. The official count of Swedes missing in Thailand stood at 3,559, mostly at Khao Lak and Ko Phi Phi, a small island that has been popular with younger people.

Only about 20 Swedes were found in hospitals, 60 others were confirmed dead and about 8,000 others were evacuated to Sweden. Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson used a New Year's message to prepare his people for the likelihood that few, if any, of the missing would be found alive.

"Khao Lak is mostly for families, so at Khao Lak there are a lot of children missing," said Jane Axelsson, 39, a Swedish volunteer helping the consulate in Phuket deal with the influx of anxious relatives searching for loved ones. At Khao Lak, many of the missing would have been swept off the beach during morning swims, she said.

"On Phi Phi, the culture is to stay awake long into the night, and sleep late in the morning," she said. There, teenagers and young people would have succumbed to the waves while still in bed, she said.

Members of the Swedish Church in Thailand have visited all the hospitals and reported that no hospitalized Swedes were left unidentified. That dashed hopes of incoming family members who clung to the belief that relatives might have been injured but were unconscious or unable to call home.

The Swedish government Saturday asked all family members missing a relative to bring identity documents of the relatives and to bring recent photographs. Final identification will likely rely on DNA testing, which officials warned could take months. "Not all of them will be identified," Axelsson said. "That is the reality we have to face today."

Thai students have arrived in the stricken areas to assist incoming relatives, mostly by helping with translation. Some of the students have been wearing large name cards showing which languages besides Thai they speak.

But at the Phuket city hall Saturday, Thai officials told foreigners flocking to the resort that it was time to give up searching for their loved ones and consider leaving, according to the Reuters news agency. A Thai Tourist Police lieutenant used a megaphone to tell relatives: "Please tell your friends not to come. . . . The bodies are no longer identifiable."

Axelsson and others have called this Sweden's biggest tragedy since World War II. Already, there is political fallout in the Scandinavian country, as newspaper columnists and some politicians accuse the government of moving too slowly in the first hours of the disaster.

Laila Freivalds, the Swedish foreign minister, visited Thailand's devastated beach resort areas and later conceded that the government had initially failed to grasp the scope of the calamity. "We ought to have taken much more forceful action on Sunday, instead of waiting," she said at a news conference. "Some of the completely wiped-out tourist resorts are those where many Swedes were staying."

Some people contend the government waited too long to order evacuation flights for the wounded and to offer assistance to family members looking for lost relatives. "I think the government realized too late that this was so big," said Axelsson, who was on a climbing trip outside the Ao Nang resort area last Sunday morning and escaped the tragedy.

Other countries facing catastrophic losses include Germany, with about 1,000 missing, Switzerland with 850 and Italy with 700. The number of Britons missing remains unclear but is believed to be in the hundreds.

To help with identification of bodies, more than a dozen countries have sent forensics teams to Thailand. They include American military experts who have dealt with the remains of missing servicemen from the Vietnam and Korean wars. Australia has sent in members of the team that assisted after the 2002 bombing of two nightclubs in Bali, Indonesia, that killed more than 200 people, many of them Australians.

While Thai victims are being buried, Prime Minister Thaksin has said no foreigners would be buried until DNA testing and identification checks were carried out.

Thai officials said they continued to have a problem with lack of refrigerated containers for the bodies. The government has appealed to private companies to provide refrigeration equipment and dry ice.