Tsunami ID process drags on

2005-03-26 11:28
Phuket, Thailand - The process of identifying the thousands of victims in Thailand of the December tsunami has been slowed down by numerous obstacles, and those involved say it could drag into next year.

Three months after the huge waves swept across the Indian Ocean and killed at least 273 000 people, the world's largest international forensics process ever undertaken has yet to identify half of the victims in Thailand.

About 5 395 people died in six Thai provinces, about half of them foreign holidaymakers. The victims hailed from dozens of nations, and governments from Europe to New Zealand have called for speedy action to return their dead.

A total of 2 932 people are still listed as missing, 909 of them foreigners, Thai authorities said on Friday.

One of the top forensic investigators overseeing work here predicts it will be another year before the bulk of bodies are identified.

"I think it would be foolish to be considering any shorter length of time than eight to 12 months," Karl Kent, a joint chief of staff at the Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) information centre on Phuket, told AFP.

Thai officials say 1 010 bodies have been identified through the DVI process and the tally is increasing by the day.

But according to Kent, an Australian forensic pathologist, the number still undergoing the Interpol-accepted process stands at 2 700, in part due to problems with obtaining clean DNA samples from victims, laboratory difficulties and the sheer magnitude of the undertaking.

Some 1 200 corpses have been identified and repatriated, DVI director police general Nopadol Somboonsub told AFP in Bangkok, adding he did not know the specific countries to which the bodies have been returned.

Sweden was one of the countries hardest-hit outside Asia, with 544 dead or missing, most of them holidaymakers in Thailand. So far 310 of its victims have been identified, with 300 repatriated, ambassador Jonas Hafstrom said in Bangkok.

"Those were the easier cases," matched mainly through dental records, Hafstrom told AFP. "The more difficult ones are to come."

The time-consuming process "might spill over to 2006", he said. "We are all doing our best to identify as many as possible, as quickly as possible."

It has been a gruesome task. Thousands of corpses were left rotting in the sun or in standing water in the days after the disaster.

Recovery crews took bodies to Buddhist temples north of Phuket, transforming them into makeshift morgues, but refrigeration took days to arrive and decomposition hindered the DVI work.

More than 300 professionals from 30 countries have converged on southwestern Thailand to help in the process, which involves analysing dental records, fingerprints, physical features such as tattoos, and DNA samples.

The DVI centre on Phuket has 60 experts on hand to co-ordinate the data.


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