07/01/2005

440 Britons may have died in tsunami disaster

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said on Friday that around 440 Britons may have lost their lives in the Asian tsunami disaster.

Speaking at a press conference, during his visit to Thailand, Mr Straw said that 49 Britons had been confirmed dead, while a further 391 remained missing.

The death toll includes 10 in Sri Lanka and three in the Maldives, as well as 36 in Thailand.

The Foreign Secretary said he feared that most of those still missing are unlikely to be found alive: "The British Metropolitan Police Service's experience is that some of those listed as very likely to be victims are subsequently found alive, but given the enormity of this natural disaster, it is clear that for many families, a period of prolonged agony lies ahead".

The Foreign Secretary admitted that the length of time it was taking to identify bodies was adding to the anguish of the victims' families, but said "the scale of the task still to be undertaken is enormous".

In order to identify the victims, 30 teams of forensic experts are currently co-ordinating their efforts to identify the bodies in what has become one of the biggest international forensic operations ever organised.

Mr Straw said that he had spoken to members of the British police and forensic teams who were in Thailand to help identify bodies and said that they believed it would be "many months" before they would be able to complete their jobs.

"They told me they had never seen anything on this scale before and their technical experts include people who were involved in the aftermath of the Lockerbie tragedy, the Bali bomb and the Potters Barr and Hatfield train crashes," Mr Straw said. "There are many hundreds of dead in the mortuary areas – it is impossible to tell the country of origin of most of these poor souls without forensic examination."

The Foreign Secretary also said that unidentified victims are still being found: "At one centre in the last two days, more than five victims of currently unknown nationality have arrived for examination".

Mr Straw conceded that some victims may never be identified: "My heart goes out to all those who face this terrible and, I fear, continuing ordeal and our condolences go to the loved ones of all victims, Thai, British and of every other nationality."

During his visit to Thailand, Mr Straw met with British consular staff, who are providing support to victims' relatives and organising transport home for injured survivors, the relatives of some of those who lost their lives, and some British survivors in Bangkok Phuket International Hospital.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has set up an emergency number on 020 7008 0000, specifically for worried relatives and friends who wish to check on UK travellers who may have been directly affected by the tsunami or to pass on information about them.

Travellers in the region are urged where possible to contact friends and relatives in the UK to let them know their whereabouts or condition.

(KMcA/SP)

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