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Asia: Tourists From CIS Among Those Missing, Killed In Tsunamis

With more than 100,000 people reported dead so far as a result of the South Asian tsunami disaster, governments and relief agencies are rushing to deliver humanitarian aid to millions of survivors. The region is a popular holiday destination for tourists from around the world, including the countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Thousands of holiday makers are reported either dead or missing, including nearly 50 Russian and Kazakh tourists. Citizens from other CIS states were also traveling in the disaster zone.

Prague, 30 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A government plane airlifted home the first group of Russian tourists from Sri Lanka yesterday.

Stanislav, who was among the 21 tourists evacuated, described to Reuters what he saw.

"Of course, it was terrifying," Stanislav said. "We didn't know where to go. We wanted to hide as high above the ground as possible because we didn't know how big the wave was going to be."

The Russian tourists sought assistance from the Russian Embassy in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, where they received food and clothing. They complained that they felt let down by tour operators. No one required medical assistance.

At least two Russian tourists -- a Moscow woman and her 6-year-old son -- were killed in Thailand when the tsunami struck the country's southern island of Phuket.

A plane dispatched today is due to start evacuating Russian tourists from Thailand. The Russian Embassy in Bangkok has registered almost 600 Russians as "safe and sound." More than 40 Russians are still unaccounted for, however.

Some Russian tourists, such as Natalya, had just arrived in Sri Lanka when the tsunami hit.

"We had just arrived [in Colombo] when it all happened," Natalya said. "So we did not even have our holiday started there. And we are grateful to the [Russian] Emergency Ministry. We just flew in and out."

In Belarus, authorities say 41 citizens were in the region when disaster struck, but no deaths have been reported.

Belarusian businessman Ihar Makalovich explained how his brother, who was visiting Thailand, escaped the tsunami.

"He and his girlfriend went up to the hills to take pictures at that moment. This is what saved them. Their hotel was destroyed completely," Makalovich said.

Some 75 Kazakh tourists were evacuated from Thailand earlier this week.

Lada Li returned to Kazakhstan from southern Thailand after the tsunami struck.

"It was really horrible, so horrible that the water rose above the second floor, breaking windows and sweeping people away," Li said.

Kazakhstan's Foreign Ministry said yesterday that five Kazakh nationals, including two children, remain in hospital on Phuket. Three other Kazakh citizens remain missing.

Azerbaijan's ambassador to India, Tamerlan Karaev, said he is optimistic about the fate of 17 Azerbaijani tourists believed to have been traveling in South Asia.

"Fortunately, we haven't received any bad news so far about their fates," Karaev said.

Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamlet Gasparian said he has no specific information but does not rule out that some Armenians may have been traveling in the disaster zone.

"We called the Thai Consulate in Yerevan, and they said no visas were issued to Armenians prior to the disaster," Gasparian said. "And the [Armenian] Embassy in India has no data about whether there were any Armenians in the disaster zones. As for the Armenians living in the region, we don't have any information. But it is possible that there were some Armenians who flew to these countries from Moscow."
Some travel agencies continue to send tourists to resorts in the region that were unaffected by the tsunamis.

Many survivors of the tsunami lack proper food and medical help, and also face the threat of disease from the lack of clean drinking water and poor sanitation. Indian authorities have also warned that high waves could strike southern coastal areas again.

Foreign governments are advising their citizens not to travel to the region.

Kazakh Foreign Ministry spokesman Mukhtar Karibai spoke with RFE/RL in Astana.

"As a result of the natural disaster that took place in Southeast Asian countries, there is a high threat of communicable diseases in that area," Karibai said. "In addition to that, some foreign weather forecast services report the possibility of a recurrence of such natural disasters as earthquakes. Taking into consideration all of the above, the Kazakh Foreign Ministry advises Kazakh citizens not to travel to this area temporarily, either for business or for private trips."

However, some travel agencies continue to send tourists to resorts in the region that were unaffected by the tsunamis. Many tourists from the CIS risk losing the money they have already paid for their holidays if they don't complete their trips.

"The situation at those resorts doesn't always correspond to what you see on television," said Irina Tyurina, a spokeswoman for Russia's Association of Travel Agencies. "In fact, there are nice inland hotels. There is a warning [about travel to the region] from epidemiologists, from the Foreign Ministry, and the Federal Tourism Agency. And Sri Lanka's Embassy is asking [Russia] to suspend flights to their country. And the airport in Colombo is asking [Russia] not to send any planes there. And Phuket [in Thailand] is asking for tourists not to be sent there but [instead] to Pattaya and other provinces. We can't forbid people to go there. It is their right. Our border is open."

Tyurina said a charter flight yesterday to Phuket was full, and that no flights to the Maldives have yet been canceled.

Officials in Russia's Far Eastern Kamchatka region say about 180 tourists left the peninsula for Thailand yesterday.

(RFE/RL's Armenian, Azeri, Belarusian, Kazakh, and Russian services contributed to this report.)