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Huge search begins for tsunami victims

Japanese troops have launched the biggest search yet for bodies still missing from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, which has left huge swathes of the country’s coastal communities in ruins.

Over 25,000 Self-Defence Force soldiers, police and coastguard officers began the two-day operation yesterday to find the nearly 12,000 missing victims of the disaster across Japan’s devastated northeast.

The massive search is being joined by the US military, Japanese navy divers, underwater robots and 90 helicopters that will scour the seas off hundreds of miles of coastline, said state broadcaster NHK.

Last month’s tsunami buried thousands of victims under mud or washed them out to sea before depositing them ashore again, in some cases dozens of miles away. Many bodies are unrecognisable after nearly six weeks in saltwater, Defence Ministry spokesman Norikazu Muratani said.

But he told Kyodo News that the search must continue. “We want to recover them and return them to their families.”

Troops and police have confirmed the deaths of 14,300 people but two earlier searches have produced dwindling results.

The last operation located fewer than 100 bodies and the authorities now fear that many victims will never be found: The bodies of nearly a quarter of the 164,000 people who died in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami have not been recovered.

“Some families want to see their loved-ones one last time so they can say goodbye,” said Naomi Fujino, who lost her father when the tsunami struck her hometown of Rikuzen-takata. “But I don’t want to see my father. I don’t think I could stand it so it’s better that he is left in peace at sea.”

Police in radiation suits only recently began the search for bodies inside the irradiated area around the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. The authorities yesterday said they were considering a mass cull of thousands of farm animals abandoned by their owners in the 20km evacuation zone.

Thousands of evacuees from the zone were yesterday told they would be allowed a single five-hour visit from next week to check their properties and pick up belongings. They are still waiting to hear if they can take abandoned pets.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan said only one member of each family would be allowed a visit; young children and pensioners are also banned from the zone, which was designated a no-go area last week.

“Since we are dealing with more than 26,000 households, we cannot (finish the

visits) all at once,” he told parliament. “It will take a considerable amount of time.”

Mr Kan is coming in for fierce parliamentary criticism for his government’s handing of the disaster aftermath and nuclear crisis. His ruling Democrats (DPJ) lost in seven out of 10 posts in local mayoral elections held over the weekend. The Democrats also performed poorly in city and prefectural polls two weeks ago - their first electoral test since the disaster.

Mr Kan yesterday defended his performance. “I can say with confidence that there was absolutely no error in our initial response,” he said. But he promised to ‘‘thoroughly review” plans construct at least 14 new reactors by 2030, part of a huge expansion of nuclear power.