Deaths 'will reach 250,000' as rebel areas reveal losses

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The Boxing Day tsunami now ranks as the eighth-worst natural disaster in history and the death toll is poised to climb still further, thanks to the bitter legacy of ethnic conflicts.

The Boxing Day tsunami now ranks as the eighth-worst natural disaster in history and the death toll is poised to climb still further, thanks to the bitter legacy of ethnic conflicts.

Exactly four weeks after the wave struck, and with bodies still being uncovered in parts of Indonesia, official figures put the total number of dead at close to 225,000. But a survey by The Independent on Sunday has found that that the final death toll is now certain to exceed 250,000 as the fate of tens of thousands in war-torn regions becomes clear.

Decades-long bloody confrontations in Indonesia and Sri Lanka have left vast areas where governments have little control or information and it appears that they have vastly underestimated the numbers killed, injured and displaced. Indonesia's number of dead dramatically leapt by 50,000 to almost 170,000 last week and information coming out of Sri Lanka suggests that many more people died in the Tamil-dominated north and east of the island than was previously thought.

The ethnic tensions that have already boiled over into battles in Indonesia since the tsunami are also playing havoc with aid efforts as minority groups complain that their needs are not being met. Tamil representatives in Sri Lanka believe that at least 30,000 people perished in rebel-controlled areas alone, while official government estimates for the country as a whole vary wildly but have gone no higher than 40,000.

Tamil groups also suggest that many more people were left homeless by the cataclysm than has been admitted. While government figures have suggested that 420,000 people were displaced across the whole of Sri Lanka, the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation believes that 616,000 people remain homeless solely in the north-east and complains that Tamils are not getting their share of aid for the rebuilding effort.

Norwegian mediators flew into Sri Lanka yesterday to try to defuse the simmering dispute between the government and Tamil Tiger rebels.

Across the region the relief operation is still in full swing. Yesterday, Rainbow Warrior, better known as Greenpeace's protest ship, was making its way around the coast of Indonesia carrying medical relief to survivors in remote areas. At the same time, a British Airways jumbo jet was touching down in Indonesia on a mercy mission, carrying 90 tons of aid from the United Nations children's charity, Unicef.

But relief workers are having to tread gingerly, to avoid getting embroiled in the simmering tensions between the government and Acehnese rebels. Survivors were reportedly on edge after the sound of gunfire echoed outside one of the relief camps in the night. There have been conflicting death tolls in Indonesia, too. A 50,000 increase in its total was put down to missing people being declared dead, but sources in the country suggest the total figure could be higher still.

Aceh province, which has been racked by civil war, was the hardest hit by the disaster, taking the full force of the earthquake and the tsunami that followed. In the capital, Banda Aceh, 90,000 bodies have been found, but thousands are still missing. United Nations representatives in Indonesia have indicated that they expect the number of dead in the country to be even greater than the figure given last week.

The search for the decomposing corpses is being led by 2,000 Indonesian troops and police, who are struggling to cope with monsoons, power cuts and flooding. But Acehnese rebels accused government troops of ditching an informal truce as erupting violence has stalled the aid effort and the search for bodies. The Indonesian military claims to have killed 120 guerrillas in the past two weeks.

Aid organisations say that, with the majority of people's immediate needs of water, food and shelter being met, the focus is now shifting to long-term reconstruction. "The acute phase is not quite over yet, but it's drawing to a close," said John Budd, Unicef's communications director in Indonesia. "Once people are in temporary accommodation with good facilities, then we will be able to say the acute phase is over."

There are still grave concerns in Indonesia over the health of survivors. While most of the 400,000 made homeless there have shelter, many are without proper sanitation facilities. "With all the rain that's been falling we and other aid agencies are worried about an outbreak of diarrhoea," Mr Budd added.