May 28, 2006

Desperate search for survivors in Indonesia quake

By Achmad Sukarsono

BANTUL, Indonesia (Reuters) - Rescue workers dug desperately for survivors on Sunday as residents returned to ruined homes on Indonesia's densely populated island of Java a day after a powerful earthquake killed nearly 3,300.

Up to 20,000 had been injured and more than 100,000 have been left homeless, UNICEF (the U.N. Children's Fund) spokesman John Budd told Reuters, but he said figures were still sketchy.

"Nobody really knows for sure simply because a lot of people were actually evacuated out ... in order to be treated and a lot of people who are injured have been turned away," Budd said.

Trucks full of volunteers from Indonesian political parties and Islamic groups, as well as military vehicles carrying soldiers, headed south from the ancient royal city of Yogyakarta to Bantul, hardest hit by the quake, to help in the effort.

"Kopassus (special forces troops) and Indonesian Red Cross volunteers are trying to comb through rubble because thousands of houses are damaged and people may still be trapped beneath them," Ghozali Situmorang, director general of aid management for the national social department, told Yogyakarta radio.

Medical supplies and body bags had begun arriving at the airport of Yogyakarta, about 25 km (16 miles) north of the Indian Ocean coast where Saturday's 6.3 magnitude quake, upgraded from an earlier 6.2, was centred just offshore. The airport was closed to commercial flights after the terminal collapsed.

A vulcanologist said the quake had heightened volcanic activity at nearby Mount Merapi, a volcano experts believe may be about to erupt. Merapi has been rumbling for weeks and sporadically emitting hot lava and highly toxic hot gas.

The official death toll stood at 3,295 by early afternoon Sunday, said the Social Affairs Ministry's disaster task force, but Budd said he had received a government figure of 3,459.

That number was expected to rise as more bodies were uncovered. The death toll "could be a lot more," aid management director Situmorang said.

In Bantul, which accounted for more than 2,000 of the deaths reported so far and where most buildings were flattened, makeshift plastic tents dotted the roads outside ruined houses as residents combed through the rubble.

"I'm just here to look for something that I can use," said Ragil, standing beside the remains of his collapsed house.

Throughout the disaster-struck region, authorities struggled to deliver aid and search-and-rescue teams.

"The problem now is that we are still short of tents, many people are still living on the streets or open areas without any tents," Suseno, a field officer of the Yogyakarta disaster task force, told Reuters.

Aid official Situmorang said a lack of clean water was the other immediate problem.


Saturday's dawn quake struck while many were still in bed. Many houses in the area were poorly constructed, with wooden roofs that fell on occupants when the quake shook them.

"My grandson died and I had to dig out land for his tomb myself. I don't know where it was," said Cipto Atmodjo, seated next to his son, who was lying on a cardboard box at a hospital in Yogyakarta.

It was the third major tremor to devastate Indonesia in 18 months, the worst being the quake on December 26, 2004, and its resulting tsunami which left some 170,000 people dead or missing around Aceh.

Indonesia sits on the Asia-Pacific's so-called "Ring of Fire," marked by heavy volcanic and tectonic activity.

On Sunday morning, a strong quake measuring 6.7 in magnitude rocked the South Pacific island nation of Tonga and the New Britain region of Papua New Guinea was shaken by a 6.2 magnitude quake, the U.S. Geological Survey said.


The international community has rallied, offering medical relief teams and emergency supplies. The United Nations, which played a major humanitarian role in Indonesia's past natural disasters including the tsunami, has sent aid to quake victims.

Australia and the United States have also pledged to send humanitarian aid worth $2.5 million and $2.2 million, respectively.

President Bush called his Indonesian counterpart, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, to express condolences. Yudhoyono has temporarily moved his office to Yogyakarta to be close to the rescue effort.

"The fallout from this earthquake is going to be massive for the Indonesians and they simply will need the support of their friends and neighbours in the international community to help them deal with it," Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

A prime tourist attraction, Yogyakarta is home to ancient and protected heritage sites such as Borobudur, the biggest Buddhist monument on Earth, which survived the quake.

But the Prambanan Hindu temple complex near the city suffered some damage and local media reported that outer sections of Yogyakarta's centuries-old royal palaces had also collapsed.

(Additional reporting by Lewa Pardomuan in Yogyakarta, Yoga Rusmana and Michelle Nichols in Jakarta and Paul Tait in Sydney)