World unites to help save the stricken as disease threatens

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The world's aid agencies are mounting the largest, most complex and costly disaster relief operation in history as the known death toll from the south Asian tsunami passes 60,000.

Two days after the undersea earthquake off northern Sumatra sent giant walls of water crashing into tourist resorts and poor coastal communities across the region, the unprecedented scale of the disaster grew clearer. The World Health Organisation (WHO) warned that cholera, dysentery and typhoid in the 11 affected countries could double the original number of dead.

Hundreds of millions of dollars would need to be delivered by international governments within days to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe, a spokesman said. The United Nations said that US$80m (£41.5m) had been pledged, although donors would need to raise more than four times that amount to cope.

Dr David Nabarro, head of the WHO's crisis team, warned the international community it was running out of time. "The terror of the tsunami may be dwarfed by long-term suffering in the affected countries where the risk of widespread disease is very high," he said. "The main thing we have to worry about is the lack of clean drinking water or the contamination of what water there is through leakage of sewage."

With the death toll continuing to mount, 19 Britons were so far confirmed among the dead but hundreds more are still unaccounted for. Among the British victims were the 14-year-old granddaughter of the film director Lord Attenborough, and a six-year-old boy whose eight-year-old brother is also missing, feared dead.

Dozens of other Europeans and Americans are also known to have died but the bodies of tourists were continuing to be discovered as the waters subsided. Sweden said it had yet to make contact with 1,500 of its citizens on holiday in the region. One hospital in Phuket helped reunite an orphaned two-year-old Swedish boy with his uncle after posting his picture on the internet. Doctors are also seeking relatives of a young German girl who had lost her parents.

An eight-year-old French girl, thought to have lost her father, was taken to Bangkok and put in the care of the French embassy. Juliet David, 8, was swept away with her father on a beach resort in southern Thailand but was found by rescuers after sleeping for two days on her own in nearby woods. She had suffered arm injuries. Her mother had remained in France.

But the people who live around the Indian Ocean have borne the brunt of the tragedy. More than 27,000 people are now thought to have been killed in Indonesia, the country closest to the epicentre of the earthquake. In the town of Meulaboh 10,000 people ­ one in four of the population ­ lost their lives and 80 per cent of the buildings were destroyed. Police struggled to keep control as hungry survivors began looting shops for food. Irman Rachman, a Red Cross official in nearby Banda Aceh, said: "People are looting, but not because they are evil, but they are hungry.

"We don't have enough people to bury the dead. We are worried that all the corpses on the streets will lead to disease." On one field, four times the size of a football pitch in Banda Aceh, more than 1,000 bodies lay. In Thailand, the bodies of more than 700 people, many of them foreign tourists, were discovered in the resort of Khao Lak.

The French hotel group Accor said it had largely given up hope for 200 of its guests still missing from the Sofitel Magic Lagoon. Some 340 guests at the Blue Village Pagarang hotel had been swept into surrounding rain forest, its owners said. The corpses of 60 more tourists were discovered among 300 dead on Koh Phi Phi. The toll on Thailand was set at 1,516 with a similar number missing.

Officials in Sri Lanka, where nearly 19,000 are known to have died, said 1,000 passengers were killed or missing from a train derailed by the huge waves. Rescue efforts were being hampered by landmines, a hangover of the country's civil war, which had been dislodged by flooding.

Estimates of the number of dead in the Andaman and Nicobar islands rose to 7,000 yesterday and on the island of Car Nicobar, one in five of the population had perished. One thousand were reported dead on the tiny island of Chowra, but rescuers had not reached some of the more remote islands.

In mainland India, where 11,500 have died, 700 bodies were discovered at Velankanni in Tamil Nadu, the worst-hit state, where pilgrims visit the 400-year-old basilica of the Virgin Mary. Priests said the number of dead was likely to double.

Yvette Stevens, of the UN Office for Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, called for the world's biggest appeal for funds, surpassing the $350m raised after the Bam earthquake in Iran which struck last Boxing Day, killing 30,000 people. The World Food Programme said it had begun distributing food in Sri Lanka, and the International Federation for the Red Cross said medicines were on their way to the region.

An Oxfam relief flight with 27 tons of aid was en route to Sri Lanka and Indonesia. British charities, under the umbrella of the Disasters Emergency Committee, launched a massive emergency appeal to help victims, raising £300,000 within the first few hours. Charities including ActionAid, British Red Cross, Cafod, Oxfam, Save the Children, Christian Aid and World Vision, need money for clean water, food and shelter.

Governments were also told they must work together to build early-warning systems to cut death tolls from natural disasters. Reid Basher, of the UN Platform for the Promotion of Early Warning (PPEW) said investment in broad education programmes was vital so people, especially in coastal areas where catastrophe often hits hardest, know what to do when warned of oncoming calamity.

But as UN officials met governments, donors and aid organisations in New York and Geneva yesterday, the US responded to criticism by Jan Egeland, the UN secretary general for humanitarian affairs, that Washington was failing to pull its weight. Colin Powell said: "The United States is not stingy. We are the greatest contributor to international relief efforts in the world." The outgoing Secretary of State said the US had pledged $15m in aid so far, and yesterday $20m more was pledged. Mr Egeland later retracted his remarks.

As hundreds of traumatised Britons returned home from the region, tour operators cancelled package holidays to Sri Lanka and parts of Thailand for the next 10 days. Trips to the Maldives will remain cancelled until 31 December. The Federation of Tour Operators said alternative holidays or refunds will be offered for cancellations, and those whose holidays are curtailed will be offered "pro rata" refunds for days lost.

Donations can be made to the Disasters Emergency Committee on 0870 606 0900