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Officials fear public-health crisis in 10 nations struck by tsunamis

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Dec. 28--MEDAN, Indonesia -- The death toll from the South Asian tsunamis grew to more than 23,000 across the battered region Monday as rescue workers stepped up efforts to recover bodies and provide aid while struggling to reach isolated areas where many more victims may be found.

In 10 countries across a 3,000-mile swath of the Indian Ocean, thousands were missing and millions left homeless. Officials warned that the lack of sanitation and shelter could turn the natural disaster into a public-health crisis.

The United Nations predicted that the relief effort would be the largest in world history. The water inundated some of the world's poorest areas and caused "many billions of dollars" in damage, said UN Undersecretary Jan Egeland.

The death toll remained difficult to determine two days after towering walls of water flooded coastal areas from Thailand to Africa, triggered by a 9.0 magnitude undersea earthquake.

In Indonesia, closest to the epicenter of the quake, officials reported about 5,000 deaths, but Indonesian Vice President Yusuf Kalla said the toll there could reach 25,000, according to the Antara state news agency.

At least 12,500 people died in Sri Lanka and 4,400 in India. Hundreds more deaths were reported in Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, the Maldives, the Seychelles and as far away as Somalia on Africa's eastern coast.

Many of the victims were children, including half of those in Sri Lanka, officials said.

Eight Americans were listed among those killed, and U.S. Embassies in the region were trying to track down hundreds of other U.S. citizens traveling or living in the region.

Surging waters blasted the Indonesian island of Sumatra, hitting with destructive force on the western and northern coasts but also wrapping around to strike the northeast. More than 36 hours after the tsunami struck, communications lines were still cut in some areas of the west, and there were fears the toll would climb.

"The number of dead remains uncertain as more bodies are still believed to be buried under water or rubble," Indonesian television reported.

There were no reports from Meulaboh, a city along Sumatra's northwest coast with a population of 30,000. Rumors circulated that it was nearly destroyed.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono visited Banda Aceh, about 150 miles from the quake's epicenter, where scores of cars were overturned in the streets and electrical power was out.

Hospitals struggled to dry out equipment that had been submerged and they were running low on supplies of disinfectant and masks. The president pleaded with victims to "be patient" until adequate emergency supplies arrive.

There were descriptions from Banda Aceh of dozens of bloated bodies littering the streets as soldiers and desperate relatives searched for survivors. About 500 bodies collected by emergency workers lay under plastic tents, rotting in the tropical heat. The supply of body bags was exhausted.

"We have ordered 15,000 troops into the field to search for survivors," Indonesian military spokesman Edy Sulistiadi said. "They are mostly retrieving corpses."

At least 3,000 people died in Banda Aceh, a city of 400,000 and capital of Aceh province. Officials said Indonesia's death toll could skyrocket when the full devastation in Aceh province becomes known.

The situation in Aceh was complicated by the government's low-grade war against separatists in the province, which had been closed to foreign aid workers and reporters. That restriction was lifted Monday.

Across the region, survivors told of watching the shallow waters near beaches quickly recede and then returning as walls of water wiped out entire villages and swept fishermen and swimmers out to sea.

At the hospital in Sri Lanka's southern town of Galle--one of the worst-affected areas in the hardest-hit nation--relatives wandered hallways lined with bodies, searching for loved ones.

A tractor brought in about 15 corpses of mostly women and children, some wrapped in white plastic sheets, while a Buddhist temple across the street tried to help people find their missing.

"The toll is increasing," said Brig. Daya Ratnayake, a military spokesman. "We are finding more bodies."

In Sri Lanka and Indonesia, at least a million people in each nation were driven from their homes.

In Thailand, warships steamed to island resorts to rescue survivors, the government offered thousands of tourists free flights away from the vacation spots hit by the huge waves. At Phuket airport, ambulances dropped off bandaged tourists for flights to Bangkok.

At Khao Lak resort, the Swedish tour operator Fritidsresor said 600 Swedes had not been accounted for.

Jimmy Gorman, 30, of Manchester, England, said he saw 15 bodies, including up to five children and a pregnant woman, on Phi Phi Island, one of Thailand's most popular destinations for Westerners.

"Disaster. Flattened everything," Gorman said. "There's nothing left of it."

Officials in Thailand and Indonesia officials acknowledged that quick public warnings of the gigantic waves could have saved lives. But governments insisted they couldn't have known the true danger because there is no warning system to track tsunamis in the Indian Ocean, and they could not afford the sophisticated equipment to build one.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard said he would investigate what role his country could play in setting up an Indian Ocean warning system.

The head of the British Commonwealth bloc of Britain and its former colonies called for talks on creating a global early warning system for tsunamis.

Tribune news services contributed to this report.


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