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Last Updated: Monday, 10 January, 2005, 18:32 GMT
Thailand tsunami victims exhumed
Thai medics carry a corpse at Ban Muang Temple in Thailand's Phang Nga province
Authorities admit mistakes may have been made identifying victims
The bodies of hundreds of tsunami victims are being exhumed in Thailand because of mistakes made in identifying victims immediately after the disaster.

Authorities say some victims quickly visually identified as Thai and buried may have been foreign nationals.

Thailand on Sunday increased by 10-fold the number of corpses listed as having an unknown national origin.

Meanwhile, Indonesia says it has set a two-week deadline for clearing up the main towns affected in Aceh province.

The province, on the northern tip of Sumatra island, was one of the regions worst-hit by the tsunami disaster.

But aid operations were briefly disrupted on Monday when a US Navy helicopter crashed near the provincial capital.

More than 150,000 people died from the 26 December tsunami, mostly in Aceh province. Many more are missing.

Microchips implanted

More then 5,300 bodies have so far been recovered in Thailand, but the Thais now admit there were so many found in the first few days that the situation became confused.

In Phang Nga, ravaged by the tsunami waves, rescue teams quickly ran out of enough refrigerated containers to store bodies in.

The decision was made to divide the bodies according to whether they were visually identified as Thai or foreign. Many apparently Thai victims were then quickly buried in sandy trenches at Bang Muang temple.

But some relatives of foreign tourists now suspect their loved ones may have been buried at Bang Muang. And though hair samples were taken, DNA procedures have changed and samples of ribs are now required, Thai forensics expert Dr Pornthip Rojanasunand said.

Now bodies will be unearthed from Bang Muang and rehoused in refrigeration containers until they can be definitively identified and released to relatives.

Microchips will also be implanted in bodies to allow accurate identification of remains.

The AFP news agency quoted Thai authorities as announcing on Sunday that the nationalities of more than 2,100 victims were still unknown - a 10-fold increase on previous reported figures. More than 3,000 people are still missing.

In other developments:

  • The UN's children's agency Unicef says it is rushing vaccines to Aceh's west coast after confirming a case of measles there

  • Schools open in Sri Lanka for the first time since the disaster

  • US Secretary of State Colin Powell says he will call for long-term US aid to the Indian Ocean region.

Two-week deadline

Meanwhile in Indonesia, the welfare minister Alwi Shihab says he has set a two-week deadline for clean-up operations in the two main cities in Aceh province, Banda Aceh and Meulaboh.

In an interview with the BBC, he promised 24 relocation centres would be up and running around Aceh within three weeks to look after the thousands of homeless.

ACEH: KEY FACTS
Province on the north-western tip of Sumatra
Higher percentage of Muslims than other parts of Indonesia
Gam rebels have fought decades-long separatist campaign
Year-long military crackdown beginning in May 2003 weakened Gam, but failed to capture senior members

Mr Shihab admitted shortcomings in the government's initial response, saying it had been completely overwhelmed and had "panicked".

In Meulaboh, near the coast, the destruction is terrible, but further into town, some shops are open and fresh produce is for sale, the BBC's Jonny Dymond reports.

Diggers are operating all around town, clearing rubble and wood from outside the concrete structures still standing.

The authorities in Aceh opened schools on Monday in an effort to restore some normality to shocked schoolchildren who have lost many of their friends.

The government said 420 schools had been destroyed and 1,000 teachers killed in Aceh province.

On Monday, rescue efforts suffered a setback when a US helicopter crashed into a rice paddy about 500m from Banda Aceh airport. At least two of the 10 people on board were injured when the SH-60 Seahawk came down.

The navy described the crash as a "hard landing", ruling out fears it had been shot down.


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