Japan will send nearly 25,000 soldiers backed by boats and aircraft into its disaster zone today on an intensive land-and-sea mission to recover the bodies of those killed by last month's earthquake and tsunami.
Agriculture officials also plan to send a team of veterinarians into the evacuation zone around a stricken nuclear plant to check on hundreds of thousands of abandoned cows, pigs and chickens, many of which are believed to have died of starvation and neglect. The government is considering euthanising some of the dying animals, officials said.
About 14,300 people have been confirmed dead so far since the catastrophic March 11 tsunami and earthquake.
Another 12,000 remain missing and are presumed killed. Some of their bodies were likely to have been swept out to sea, while others remain buried under the mass of rubble.
Clean-up crews discovered some remains as they gingerly removed rotting debris to clear the area for rebuilding. But the two-day military search operation will be far more extensive, according to Defence Ministry spokesman Ippo Maeyama.
"We will do our utmost to recover bodies for bereaved families," he said.
Mr Maeyama claimed that 24,800 soldiers will scour the rubble, backed by 90 helicopters and planes. Another 50 boats and 100 navy divers will search the waters up to 20km off the coast, with police, coast guards and US troops also taking part.
He added: "It's been very difficult and challenging to find bodies because the areas hit by the tsunami are so widespread. Many bodies also have been swept away."
The operation is the third intensive military search for bodies since the disaster last month. With the waters receding, Mr Maeyama hopes the teams will have more success, although the search will be complicated by the decomposition of some corpses.
"You have to be very careful in touching the bodies because they quickly disintegrate. We cannot tell the bodies' gender anymore, let alone their age," he said. The searches will continue, however, "as long as families want us to look for their loved ones", added Mr Maeyama.
Meanwhile, the government in the Fukushima prefecture will send six veterinarians into the 12-mile (20km) evacuation zone around the radiation-leaking Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant to survey the livestock there.
Farmers in the area were estimated to have left 3,000 cows, 130,000 pigs and 680,000 chickens behind when they fled the area last month at the start of the nuclear crisis. With no time for burials, veterinarians who find dead livestock will spray lime over them to prevent them from spreading disease, agricultural officials said.
The government considering euthanising dying animals after getting permission from their owners, said Yutaka Kashimura, an agricultural official in Fukushima.
"Killing animals is the very last resort," he said.Reuse content