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Indonesia mulls leaving quake-flattened villages as mass graves

More bodies were unearthed from the earthquake-and-tsunami-ravaged Indonesian city of Palu on Saturday, as authorities move closer to calling off the search for the dead trapped under flattened communities and declaring them mass graves.

Officials said Saturday the death toll had climbed to 1,649, with more than a thousand feared still missing in the seaside city on Sulawesi island.

More than 82,000 military and civilian personnel, as well as volunteers, have descended on the devastated city, where relief groups say clean water and medical supplies are in short supply.

After days of delays, international aid has slowly begun trickling into the disaster zone where the UN says almost 200,000 people need humanitarian assistance.

But hopes of finding anyone alive a full eight days later have all but faded, as the search for survivors morphs into a grim gathering of the dead.

At the massive Balaroa government housing complex, where the sheer force of the quake turned the earth temporarily to mush, soldiers wearing masks to ward off the stench of death clambered over the giant mounds of mud, brick and cement.

Vast numbers of decomposing bodies could still be buried beneath this once-thriving neighbourhood, the search and rescue agency said.

Two soldiers who are part of the search emerged from a ditch with a body bag sagging in the middle but looking too light to be a corpse -- they said they had found the heads of two adults and one child.

"There are no survivors here. We just find bodies, every day," said army sergeant Syafaruddin, who like many Indonesians goes by one name.

- Health fears -

At the flattened Hotel Roa-Roa -- where early optimism that survivors might be found faded as the days wore on -- rescuers reviewed CCTV footage to get a sense of where the doomed guests could be buried.

In Petobo -- another village all but wiped off the map -- teams struggled to extract bodies from the muck, often dislodging limbs loosened by decomposition after more than a week exposed to the elements.

The search for survivors has not officially been called off.

But security minister Wiranto said the government had been discussing with local leaders and religious figures as to when the worst-hit areas would be declared mass graves, and left untouched.

"We have to make a decision as to when the search for the dead will end. Then, we later must decide when the area will be designated a mass grave," he told reporters late Friday.

Concerns are growing that decomposing bodies could turn into a serious health hazard.

"Most of the bodies we have found are not intact, and that poses a danger for the rescuers. We have to be very careful to avoid contamination," Yusuf Latif, a spokesman for Indonesia's search and rescue agency, told AFP from Palu.

"We have vaccinated our teams, but we need to be extra cautious."

While the World Health Organization says there is no evidence to suggest bodies in such disaster situations could spark an epidemic, it has warned that those handling corpses are at a risk of contracting diseases like tuberculosis, cholera, and bloodborne viruses.

Thousands of survivors continued to stream out of Palu to nearby cities in the aftermath of the disaster.

Hospitals remain overstretched and short on staff and supplies.

In Karawana village, nurse Iyong Lamatowa can offer little more than antibiotics and painkillers to treat those flocking to a makeshift clinic with badly-infected wounds.

Project HOPE, a medical NGO, said only two of its 82 staff in Palu had reported for duty since the quake.

"We still don't know the fate of the clinic doctors, nurses and technicians who usually staff the clinic," the organisation said in a statement.

- Short supplies -

Survivors have ransacked shops and supply trucks in the hunt for basic necessities, prompting security forces to round up dozens of suspected looters and warn that they will open fire on thieves.

Hundreds of people Saturday rushed a truck transporting gas cylinders for cooking while a supermarket that opened for business under military guard refused to allow people inside, instead passing goods through the door.

A convoy of five hundred trucks laden with donated food, cooking oil and other essentials was on its way to Palu, agriculture minister Amran Sulaiman said in the devastated city on Saturday.

"Palu's ordeal is grief for all of us and that's why everyone is lending a hand to help," he said.

The United Nations said Friday it was seeking $50.5 million "for immediate relief" to help victims.

Getting vital supplies to the affected areas has proved hugely challenging, with the number of flights able to land at Palu's small airport still limited, leaving aid workers facing gruelling overland journeys.

Oxfam had sent water treatment units and purification kits to Palu and Swiss aid teams on the ground were providing drinking water and emergency shelter, both said in statements Saturday.

Indonesia sits along the world's most tectonically active region, and its 260 million people are vulnerable to earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions.
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