Can we save them?

More than £1bn given in race to stop millions more suffering
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The Independent Online

Emergency teams, including British ships and aircraft, were engaged in a race against time last night to reach tens of thousands of victims still waiting for desperately needed aid, a week after the earthquake and tidal waves which devastated coasts around the Indian Ocean.

Emergency teams, including British ships and aircraft, were engaged in a race against time last night to reach tens of thousands of victims still waiting for desperately needed aid, a week after the earthquake and tidal waves which devastated coasts around the Indian Ocean.

As worldwide pledges in the wake of the disaster passed the £1bn mark ­ boosted by £260m from Japan, the single biggest donation so far ­ the UN humanitarian chief, Jan Egeland, estimated that the number of dead was approaching 150,000. "The vast majority of those are in Indonesia," he said, adding that the final death toll would probably never be known.

But Indonesian officials warned that their country alone could have lost more than that number, and the Swedish Foreign Minister, Laila Freivalds, said after visiting tsunami-ravaged Thailand: "In the whole area the death toll is beginning to rise towards 200,000."

Ships and aircraft converged on the Indonesian province of Aceh, the area worst affected by last Sunday's earthquake, which at 9.0 on the Richter scale was the strongest in 40 years and the fifth most violent since 1900. The epicentre was just offshore, and the province was the first to be hit by the tsunami that followed.

The UN Secretary General Kofi Annan will visit the Indonesian capital of Jakarta on Thursday, from where he will launch a global appeal for help.

Annan described the devastation the "largest disaster we have had to deal with" and estimated the reconstruction process would take five to 10 years. "Because the devastation is enormous it will require billions of dollars," he said.

Aid efforts in Aceh, hampered for days by blocked roads, fuel shortages, the death of most local officials and the limited size of the airport at Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, were eased yesterday by the arrival of an American military flotilla. The airstrip at Meulaboh, the town closest to the epicentre, was partially reopened, allowing small planes and helicopters to deliver relief supplies to areas that had been cut off since last Sunday.

But as the biggest emergency aid operation in history gathered pace, workers in Sri Lanka were struggling with heavy rain and strong winds, which limited flights and worsened flooding.

Flash floods triggered by torrential rain deepened the misery for the survivors and increased the threat of deadly water-borne diseases.

Flooding in the east of Sri Lanka forced the evacuation of 2,000 already displaced people.

Continuing aftershocks from the earthquake brought small waves ashore in some places, causing panic among local people, many of whom had lost family members in the tsunami waves.

Britain is sending a Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel, Diligence, and the frigate HMS Chatham, with Lynx helicopters, to Sri Lanka to help aid operations. They are expected to arrive on Tuesday. RAF cargo aircraft are also being used for relief work.

While sending aid to the region, Western governments were also seeking to establish how many of their citizens had been lost at the height of the winter tourist season. The Swedish government said yesterday that the total number of Western tourists killed in Thailand alone would be over 3,300, and could exceed 4,600.

Thailand's national disaster centre has said at least 2,400 of the nearly 4,800 people so far found dead are foreigners.

Though unofficial estimates of the number of missing Britons suggest that there are several hundred, the Foreign Office refuses to give a figure, arguing that initial estimates often prove exaggerated. The number of confirmed British dead rose yesterday to 35.

The Indonesian Red Cross reportedly dug out a survivor buried since the tsunami struck in the ruins of a house in Banda Aceh when rescuers heard cries for help.

On India's remote Andaman and Nicobar islands a woman who escaped the waves has named her baby Tsunami after giving birth in the forest that became her sanctuary.

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