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Asia: Tourists Evacuated While Search Continues In Thailand

On the first day of a new year, injured tourists and dead bodies are being flown back home from Thailand, while rescue efforts and search for victims continue on the ground.

1 January 2005 -- The Rescue Center at Phuket International Airport is brimming with injured tourists anxiously awaiting their flights back home after narrowly surviving the tsunamis disaster on Thailand's western coast.

Despite the scenes of suffering and distress, the foreigners going home alive are the lucky ones.

Fourteen Italians have been confirmed killed while another several hundred remain unaccounted for. Swedish Ambassador to Thailand Jonas Hafstrom said 3,500 Swedish tourists are still missing.

"During the Christmas we have between 15,000 and 20,000 Swedes here. So when we are counting the missing people right now we have a very high figure that 3,500 missing Swedish citizens right now," Hafstrom said.

Thailand's Interior Ministry has put the official death toll at 4,560, including 2,230 foreigners. But Interior Minister Bhokin Bhalakula said today they still could not announce a final number of fatalities with rescue teams uncovering scores of new bodies every day.

Bhalakula said that rescue teams continue to search for bodies.

"We will continue for another week, starting from today for seven days and we will consider again whether we should extend more days for the search," Bhalakula said.

Foreigner volunteers, such as Ben Jablonski from the United States, have joined thousands of Thais who volunteered to help in the clean-up, as well as any other aid activity needed.

"While we were here we decided, while vacationing we decided, we'd also like to spend sometime in the morning helping out. So we did this yesterday, we're down that way a little bit. We find places that are clearing out and jump in with them," Jablonski said.
"We will continue for another week, starting from today for seven days and we will consider again whether we should extend more days for the search."

At Khao Lak, dozens of bodies arriving at a temporary morgue at Yan Yao Buddhist temple were unrecognisable after so long in the tropical heat. Marko Cunningham, a weary New Zealand volunteer at the temple, said yesterday that the decomposing bodies posed a health risk.

"Human parts all over the place, dogs have been in as well last night to some of the bodies. Yes, there is a potential for disease here, yes," Cunningham said.

Australia's Ambassador to Thailand Bill Paterson warned it would take weeks if not months for people to find their loved ones.

"Bereaved families want to know, or families who have people missing, want an answer now and today. But the sad message I really want to say to them is this could be weeks if not months. Most bodies now are beyond the state of visual identification. We'll be looking at various other indicators such as dental examination, DNA, and other indicators to establish positive identification," Paterson said.

However, a number of people have reportedly been making their way to the devastated region to look for loved ones.