DNA hunt for relatives of tsunami victims

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DNA samples and personal and health records of up to 600 suspected British victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami are to be collected in one of Britain's biggest police operations.

DNA samples and personal and health records of up to 600 suspected British victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami are to be collected in one of Britain's biggest police operations.

Hundreds of officers are to start obtaining evidence that could be used to identify Britons who died. In some cases, DNA samples, fingerprints, and dental records will be used; in others, information such as phone and bank records will be used to confirm victims whose bodies have not been found.

Weeks after the tsunami, hopes are fading that many of the bodies of missing tourists and expatriates will be found. So far, 53 Britons have been confirmed dead, 203 are thought "highly likely" to have been caught up in the disaster and 346 remain unaccounted-for.

Yesterday, the Foreign Office announced details of a fast-tracking system that will allow death certificates to be issued within months in cases where no body has been found.

Douglas Alexander, the Foreign Office minister, said that because of the "exceptional circumstances", the Government was waiving the normal seven-year period before a certificate can be issued in cases where no body has been found. Mr Alexander said that for a certificate to be issued the police would have to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the person concerned had travelled to the affected region; that on the balance of probability they were in the area when the tsunami struck; that there was no reasonable evidence of life since 26 December; and there was no reason on the balance of probability to believe the person would want to disappear.

Without death certificates, the financial affairs of the missing will be frozen, making it impossible for relatives to claim inheritance. They may also be unable to claim life insurance.

Regional police teams, similar to homicide squads, will begin gathering evidence about each of the suspected British tsunami victims in the next few days. Among the material being collected are DNA samples from toothbrushes and hair brushes, dental and medical records, fingerprints, and financial and telephone records to check whether the suspected victim has been active since the tsunami.

Commander Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan Police officer in charge of the UK police operation, told The Independent: "We are just about to put out all the inquiries on a national basis. It is a bit like a massive homicide inquiry. It is the biggest UK operation that the police have done together."

A total of 370 police officers and staff are working on the identification of victims and helping grieving families, all of which is being co-ordinated by the Metropolitan Police in an inquiry known as Operation Bracknell. This number will rise as 11 regional centres are set up to co-ordinate investigations into every suspected British victim.

At first police will concentrate on the 203 people classed as category 1 - those considered "highly likely" to have fallen victim to the tsunami - then move on to the 346 people in category 2, those reported to have been in the disaster area and still missing. Commander Dick said these figures were expected to drop as people were found to be alive, particularly independent travellers.

But she added, police were still being alerted to new suspected British victims. In one example, a Sri Lankan family was reported missing after they failed to return home to London a couple of days ago.

Commander Dick added that Scotland Yard was calling for an independent tribunal to be set up to verify the action of the police so grieving families could be confident that everything had been done to identity victims and that there was no likelihood of them still being alive.