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Grim search for bodies after Indonesian tsunami

PANGANDARAN, Indonesia – Rescuers dug with bare hands in a grim search for bodies after more than 520 people were confirmed killed in the second tsunami to strike Indonesia in as many years.

The three-metre (10-foot) tsunami lashed the densely-populated south coast of Java island on Monday, sparking memories of the 2004 catastrophe that left 220,000 people dead across Asia, 168,000 of them in Indonesia’s Aceh province.

Soldiers in Pangandaran, a resort that suffered some of the worst damage, lacked heavy equipment to move debris and resorted to digging through the wreckage with their bare hands.

“We are looking for people who are still missing or buried under the rubble as well as clearing the debris,” army officer Deden Rajab, who led a group of 27 soldiers, told AFP.

Wasdi bin Umri, a spokesman for Ciamis district which includes the area, said however that enough heavy equipment for the relief work was being used.

Muslim activists and soldiers buried the bodies of 27 tsunami victims, many unidentified or unclaimed by their relatives, at a cemetery where many graves were destroyed by the tsunami.

Each of the graves was labelled to allow relatives to match it with a photograph of the deceased.

With nerves still on edge, rumours of a fresh tsunami in Pangandaran triggered panic Wednesday when four strong quakes of magnitudes measuring 4.9 to 5.4 rattled the area.

They were among 52 strong aftershocks to have hit since Monday’s 7.7-magnitude undersea quake unleashed the tsunami, a meteorology official said.

Frightened residents in Pangandaran jumped on motorbikes or in cars, almost causing traffic accidents as they tried to reach higher ground.

Separately, some residents in western Java fled their homes and police raced to warn people of a potential tsunami after a 6.2-magnitude quake hit between Java and Sumatra islands, but it was deemed to be too deep to pose a threat.

A geophysicist from the Hawaii-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, Gerard Fryer, told AFP: “Our assessment is that it is no hazard.”

Minutes after the quake struck, an official from Indonesia’s national seismology centre told Elshinta radio, which is broadcast across much of the country, that it may have caused a tsunami.

“People are advised to be on alert,” he said. The quake was felt in the capital for about one minute, where it caused tall buildings to sway and sparked some evacuations. At least 525 people were killed by Monday’s waves, the National Disaster Management Coordinating Agency said, while 273 people were still missing. About 38,000 people have been displaced, it said.

Aid meanwhile trickled through as a haphazard relief operation took shape.The UN’s World Food Programme said two trucks carrying 15 tonnes of noodles and high-energy biscuits had arrived in Pangandaran.

“We’re trying to reach around 20,000 people in the next week,” spokesman Barry Came told AFP, adding that a team of WFP staff were leaving Wednesday for the area to “figure out exactly what to do.”