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Thais Abandon Hunt For Tsunami Dead


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From today's Sunday Times....

Thais abandon hunt for tsunami dead

By Adam Fresco and Daniel McGrory

THAI authorities are calling off their operation to identify the bodies of tsunami victims because they say that it is hampering attempts to lure tourists.

Families of more than 100 Britons still unaccounted for in Thailand will be outraged at the decision, taken in secret by government officials.

Next of kin were promised that the international effort to identify victims would continue until the last body was returned home, no matter how long it took.

The Thais have made no public announcement about their plan because they expect a backlash from European governments who are still missing more than 1,200 people. Nor have they told the international task force in southern Thailand, which is led by a team of 90 police and forensic scientists from Britain.

Senior officials told The Times that the decision to end the hunt had been discussed with Thaksin Shinawatra, the Thai Prime Minister, who agreed that the operation should be wound up.

The authorities have not said what they will do with remains that have not been identified by the time that the operation is called off. Officials suggest that they could be cremated in a Buddhist ceremony or buried in a mass grave. No final date for ending the process has been set, but officials say that it will happen before the peak tourist season, which begins in September.

There is growing anger among British families at the slow progress that the Thais are making to identify more than 3,000 bodies from the Boxing Day tragedy. So far only 75 Britons have been confirmed dead in Thailand. There are at least another 106 still missing.

Simon Serls is still trying to trace his mother, Parvin Rieu, 67, and will host a memorial service today for her on what would have been her birthday.

Only days ago, police asked if they could take more fingerprints to help in the identification, telling Mr Serls that it might be a year or more before victims’ names are confirmed.

“It’s too soon to stop the process,” he said. “We have not got very far down the line and the authorities are planning to call off the process without consulting families. The time will come when you have to call a halt, but this is premature.”

Juthamas Siriwan, the Governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, said that holidaymakers did not want to be reminded of the tragedy, so foreign volunteers would be sent home and identification sites closed.

“It is a very sensitive issue,” he said. “I think it is to end no longer than six months. If you cannot identify bodies within that time, you have to do something (and say) no more. If they can’t match DNA, you have to admit that you can’t find a body. There are a lot of people still not identified, about 3,000. The Government are confident they can match everyone soon.”

The Government has not been informed of the Thai plan. A Foreign and Commonwealth Office spokesman said: “We share the same aim as the Thais to swiftly and securely identify all the victims and we will liaise with them how this can best be done.”

The Thai Government was accused of insensitivity just days after the disaster, when ministers announced that they were calling off their search for bodies. Protests from local families and international governments forced the Thais to go back on that plan. Bereaved families are pleading with Jack Straw to demand that the Thais speed up the identification process, which is being hindered by infighting, red tape and incompetence among Thai officials.

Three months after the disaster, victims whose names were known within hours are still lying in refrigerated containers or overcrowded mortuaries.

Police and forensic officers from Germany, Britain, Sweden, China and other countries vastly outnumber paying guests at many five-star hotels in Phuket. Senior Thai officials have admitted that they fear that tourists will not arrive if the hotels are still full of the officers.

Thai families who have staged several protests at the time it is taking to return bodies are certain to lead opposition to shutting down the forensic search. Ministers argue that their priority has to be the repair of Thailand’s tourist trade.

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