Two hundred missing as death toll in Java tsunami reaches 340

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The Independent Online

The death toll in the Indonesian tsunami rose to at least 340 yesterday, with more than 600 people injured, as rescue workers recovered bodies from coconut trees and the rubble of flattened homes.

Tidal waves up to six metres high struck beach resorts and fishing villages along the southern Java coast on Monday, in a reminder of the tragedy that killed more than 220,000 people in 11 countries bordering the Indian Ocean in 2004. Two-thirds of those deaths were in Indonesia, which has experienced a string of disasters since, including an earthquake in May that claimed nearly 6,000 lives. Phil Vine, a Red Cross official, said Indonesians were calling their country "the disaster supermarket".

People searching for missing friends and relatives were combing the wreckage of houses yesterday and lifting the sheets covering the bodies at makeshift morgues to check their identity of the dead. In the hospital at Pangandaran, a popular tourist spot and surf resort that bore the brunt, one man collapsed in grief over the mud-streaked corpse of a child. At least six foreign tourists were killed, including a Pakistani, a Swede and a Dutchman. Two Swedish children are reportedly among the 229 people missing.

Hamed Abukhamiss, 40, a Saudi Arabian, lost his wife and four-year-old son. They were at a waterfront café in Pangandaran and were separated by the waves that crashed into the beach. "We were spun around like a washing machine," said Mr Abukhamiss.

The wall of water - unleashed by an earthquake registering 7.7 on the Richter scale off the densely populated coast - sent boats, cars and motorbikes smashing into hotels and shops, and flooded rice fields up to 500 metres inland. At least 53,000 people were displaced, having lost their homes or fled in panic. Mr Vine said the tidal wave "picked up 30ft outriggers on the beach and threw them like javelins through the buildings". He added: "It really is quite intense. A fury, that's what it feels like... within half a kilometreof the beach there is just complete devastation."

Alerts were issued by two regional monitoring centres but were not sent on to threatened communities, the Indonesian Science and Technology Minister, Kusmayanto Kadiman, admitted, because the authorities did not want to cause unnecessary alarm.

Indonesia has begun installing an early-warning system, but so far it covers only Sumatra island, where the 2004 tsunami claimed most lives. It will not be completed until 2009.

Many residents did not even feel the quake this time. As the sea receded, some escaped to higher ground. But others did not notice the warning sign, because the tide was already low. Uli Sutarli, one such resident, said: "I heard people screaming and then I heard something like a plane about to crash near by, and I ran."

Heff Martin, a Swiss tourist, said he and his girlfriend heard people screaming "the sea is coming" and ran to the second floor of their hotel.

After the waves hit the building, they took refuge on the roof by breaking through the ceiling.