Indonesia battles to aid tsunami survivors

Indonesia battled to deliver aid to remote islands where a tsunami has killed at least 394 people.

Last Updated: Oct 29, 2010, 09:44 AM IST

North Pagai: Indonesia battled to deliver aid to remote islands where a tsunami has killed at least 394 people, with rescuers finding bodies strewn on beaches and stuck in trees days after the wave hit.

Elsewhere in the disaster-prone archipelago, the nation`s most active volcano was spewing searing heat clouds, sparking concern over the fate of residents who may have returned to their homes after an eruption left 32 people dead.

Disaster response officials believe the final death toll from the huge wave that hit the Mentawai island chain off the west coast of Sumatra Monday could pass 500, with many of the victims sucked out to sea or buried in debris.

Almost 13,000 people are living in makeshift camps on the islands after their homes were wiped out in the wave, which was triggered by a powerful 7.7 magnitude earthquake.

On the central island of Java, Mount Merapi spewed ash, heat clouds and lava, a day after a mass burial for many of those killed in Tuesday`s eruption that sent thousands fleeing into temporary shelters.

"It shot heat clouds at 6:10 am (1110 GMT Thursday) as far as 3.5 kilometres (over two miles) down its southeastern slopes and followed this with ash rain," volcanologist Heru Suparwoko told a news agency.

He said the heat clouds were "definitely dangerous" for anyone in their path, amid concern that some of the 50,000 people who have fled to temporary shelters may have returned to their homes on the volcano`s slopes.

On the Mentawais, a picturesque destination for foreign surfers but an otherwise poor and neglected part of Indonesia, bodies were being found buried on beaches and even stuck in trees.

"Of those missing people we think two-thirds of them are probably dead, either swept out to sea or buried in the sand," disaster management official Ade Edward said Thursday.

"When we flew over the area yesterday (Wednesday) we saw many bodies. Heads and legs were sticking out of the sand, some of them were in the trees. If we add another 200 to the toll it would be at least 543 dead."

Indonesia initially refused offers of foreign aid but on Thursday Australia announced that Jakarta had accepted a million dollars worth of assistance for both disasters.

The United States and several Asian countries have also offered help.

The European Commission released 1.5 million euros (two million dollars) in aid and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the United Nations stood ready to assist in any way.

"Indonesia is currently addressing a multitude of emergencies, whose cumulative impact is putting local capacity under severe strain," European aid chief Kristalina Georgieva said.

The European money will help around 65,000 people in the Mentawais and another 22,000 affected by the volcano in central Java.

Bad weather has hampered efforts to ferry aid such as tents, medicine, food and water to the islands by boat from the nearest port of Padang, which is more than half a day away even in the best conditions.

Indonesia has dispatched troops and at least five warships to the region but there is believed to be a need for more helicopters to reach the most isolated communities, some of which lack roads and wireless communications.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono visited the area Thursday to console the victims, having cut short a visit to Vietnam to attend a regional summit. He told distraught survivors that aid was on its way.

Indonesia and foreign donors have spent millions of dollars on an elaborate tsunami warning system since the 2004 wave which killed more than 168,000 people on Sumatra and nearby islands.

But survivors of Monday night`s disaster said the only warning they received was the roaring sound of the wave itself as it sped towards them shortly before 10 pm.

Many felt the earthquake but a tsunami alert issued minutes later in Jakarta failed to reach the villages in most danger.

An official responsible for the warnings dismissed reports that the system was faulty and blamed local authorities on the Mentawais for failing to pass on the alert, telling reporters: "We don`t feel there was any mistake."

The Indonesian archipelago sits on a "ring of fire" studded with scores of active volcanoes and stretches from the Pacific to the Indian oceans, spanning several tectonic plates including the Australian and Sunda plates.

According to the US Geological Survey, Monday`s earthquake was "the latest in a sequence of large ruptures along the Sunda megathrust" including the 2004 quake.

Bureau Report