Britain pledges more aid as death toll rises

Posted in Europe | 11-Jan-05 | Author: Colin Brown and Jan McGirk| Source: The Independent

British and Australian army unload relief supplies from a British Air Force C-17 cargo plane at Banda Aceh airport, Indonesia, January 6, 2005.

A national memorial service is to be held in London for the victims of the tsunami disaster, Tony Blair announced yesterday as the official death toll of Britons rose to 51.

Grieving families are to be consulted on the timing and form of the service. The Prime Minister is likely to play a prominent role, along with the Queen. Mr Blair will hope to escape the criticism he faced over being perceived as "muscling in" on the Queen Mother's funeral, but his officials recognise the sensitivity of the event. One said in response to requests for more details: "Let us wait and see." Mr Blair said the number of Britons missing and "highly likely" to be lost had risen by 10 to 453 but he made it clear that hundreds more British citizens may have died: 871 others are unaccounted for. Although this is fewer than the 2,000 feared missing last week, the figure of 453 still marks the greatest loss of British life in a natural disaster. He warned the fate of some may never be known for certain.

In Thailand, work has begun on the task of exhuming thousands of corpses amid fears they have been wrongly identified. Volunteers and forensic scientists are working 18-hour days in Phang Nga province, where dozens of luxury seaside resorts were obliterated.

Most of the victims' relatives sanction this macabre task of re-sorting. A frequent concern is that the remains of tourists with Asian features may have been put in shallow trenches alongside the bodies of Thai victims.

Sixteen days after the tsunami hit, decomposition makes it impossible to distinguish facial features or skin tone visually. A team of 40 forensic scientists from Bangkok's Siriraj hospital is planting microchips with DNA information into all the bodies. They will also be embalmed with wax to stop decomposition. The full-scale reidentification process will take weeks, maybe months, to complete.

Mr Blair, who has faced criticism for the slow response by his government, announced an increase in aid from £50m to £75m. The additional sum will come from the Treasury reserve and not from existing projects, he said.

However, Oxfam attacked the Government last night, saying £50m had been taken from the reserves of the Department for International Development. Phil Bloomer, Oxfam's head of advocacy said: "The tsunami has emptied DfID's reserves completely. Though the new money announced today is welcome, we are extremely concerned that DfID's emergency reserves remain depleted."

Speaking for the first time to MPs on the disaster, Mr Blair said: "Scarcely any of us here will not know someone whose life has been touched by this event. None of us will not have been moved to tears as each night we saw with mounting horror the human tragedy that followed the natural disaster."

British diplomats have been criticised but Mr Blair defended Foreign Office staff. "There will inevitably be mistakes made or unintended insensitivity in certain cases. But I am clear these staff have done a quite magnificent and exceptional job," he said.

Michael Howard, the Tory leader, in a sideswipe at Mr Blair, said the British people had shown a lead in answering the relief appeal, but that people who put money in collection boxes could not claim gift-aid to increase their contributions.