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Military searches for bodies in Samoa

Some frightened Samoans who fled to the hills as a tsunami tore through their seaside villages vowed today never to return to the coastline, while aid workers delivered water and medicine amid the growing stench of decay.

Grieving survivors began to bury their loved ones, while others gathered under a traditional meeting house to hear a government minister discuss plans for a mass funeral and burial next week.

The death toll from Tuesday's earthquake and tsunami rose to 169 yesterday as searchers found more bodies in Samoa, where 129 were confirmed dead, police commissioner Lilo Maiava told The Associated Press. Another 31 were killed in the US territory of American Samoa and nine in Tonga.

Maiava said drowning appeared to be the main cause of death, and some bodies were still being plucked from the sea. Police dug others from sand, mud and debris. Maiava said the search for bodies could continue for another three weeks.

A refrigerated freight container was used as a temporary morgue for the scores of bodies at a Samoan hospital.

The United States, Australia and New Zealand sent in supplies and troops, including a US Navy frigate carrying two helicopters for search-and-rescue efforts. The Hawaii Air National Guard and US Air Force flew three cargo planes to American Samoa carrying 100 Navy and Army guard personnel and reservists.

President Barack Obama called American Samoa Gov. Togiola Tulafono on Thursday to convey his condolences to the families of those killed, the governor said.

"It was nice that he called personally," Tulafono said, adding that he thanked the president for quickly declaring a disaster in the US territory.

Many residents who raced up hillsides as the tsunami closed in remained too scared to return to their villages. More headed to the hills Wednesday night after an aftershock shook the region.

"It's a scary feeling, and a lot of them said they are not coming to the coastal area," Red Cross health coordinator Goretti Wulf said near the flattened village of Lalomanu on the devastated south coast of Samoa's main island, Upolu. "The lesson they learned has made them stay away."

Workers at Lalomanu's makeshift emergency supply base began carting water, food, tarps and clothes to 3,000 people in the hills.

Wulf said drinking water was the most pressing problem. It is the end of Samoa's dry season, when rain is scarce, and the water pipes that supply the villages were destroyed.

Military vehicles brought food, water and medicine and medical teams gave tetanus shots and antibiotics to survivors with infected wounds.

Many survivors wore face masks to reduce the growing stench of rot.

Samoan government minister Fiana Naomi asked around 400 grieving relatives for permission to hold a mass funeral next Tuesday. She said the government would provide free coffins for the 103 bodies in the morgue.

She said other bodies had already been buried due to advanced decomposition.

One family in Lalomanu held a burial yesterday, placing seven relatives aged 2 to 55 in a single, hastily dug grave. One body had been retrieved from the ocean only hours earlier. A young mother, Sina Edmund Taufua, kissed the cheeks of her dead son and daughter, ages 6 and 5, at the edge of the grave as her bandaged arm was supported by a relative.

The family dead were buried without coffins, their bodies covered with a woven mat, during a service that blended traditional Samoan culture with a Christian church ceremony.

They were buried next to the fresh graves of the family patriarch and a seven-year-old relative — other victims of the tsunami who were buried on Tuesday.

With 13 relatives dead, the Taufua clan believes they are among the worst affected by the disaster.

"I'm not sure the word 'shock' fully describes our sense of loss," relative Ben Taufua said. "Nothing makes sense at all. ... The beach where all of this happened, all those lives were lost, it was paradise on Earth."

The Samoas, which lie about halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii, have breathtaking scenery. Majestic beaches give way to volcano-carved mountainsides and tropical forests are dotted with taro and coconut farms.

Before the disaster struck, the majority of the population in American Samoa lived below the poverty line. Tourism, along with tuna canneries and coconut plantations, represent the bulk of economic activity.

New Zealanders Joseph Bursin and Nicky Fryar said they scrambled to reach high ground as the tsunami surged toward their beachfront vacation resort in Samoa. Their sandals were slipping off as they sprinted up a rock-covered hill and climbed over a lagoon full of mud.

They remember the noise — the roar of the water, the clanging of metal roofing smashing against cars, the sound of buildings collapsing.

"We had about 15 or 20 seconds before the water came in underneath us," Bursin said. "There were people behind us who didn't make it and were taken by the water."

In nearby Tonga, National Disaster Management Office deputy director Alfred Soakai said 90 per cent of the buildings on the northern island of Niuas were washed away, with the local hospital destroyed.

Villagers in Niuas on Thursday received their first relief supplies of food, water, clothing, tarps and some bedding. Four seriously injured villagers were flown to a hospital in the capital, Nuku'alofa.