Friday January 7, 3:36 PM
Search for bodies goes on, as Thailand seeks to quell mass grave fears

PHUKET, Thailand (AFP) - Thailand is pressing on with its grim search for tsunami victims, as officials sought to reassure European nations that no foreigners were buried without identification in mass graves.

About half of the nearly 5,300 victims of the Thai tsunami were foreign holidaymakers, and the government has insisted that nothing would be done with their bodies with the consent of their families.

"It's Thai government policy not to do anything with foreigners' corpses except with the consent of their relatives. Thus, all foreign bodies are kept in containers," government spokesman Jakrapob Penkair told AFP.

Swedish, Dutch and German envoys have formally asked the Thai foreign ministry for information about the reported use of mass graves, the Swedish foreign ministry said.

They want to know whether the bodies of tourists are being buried in mass grave permanently, temporarily pending identification, or not at all, said a foreign ministry official, Anders Ericsson.

Swedish Prime Minister Goeran Persson and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have stressed the importance of identifying their dead.

Australian federal agent Karl Kent, with a team helping to identify the dead, said temporary mass graves for victims were needed because of the scale of the disaster.

"It was the most appropriate process, and I support it," Kent told reporters. "All of these persons will be exhumed."

But the director of the World Health Organization in Thailand, William Aldis, warned that mass graves posed major obstacles to retrieving bodies later.

"Unless they are laid out in such a way that you can number and position each body, identification becomes virtually impossible," he said.

Australian ambassador Bill Paterson said he believed "the Thai government is acting honourably in this process."

"We got assurance that the policy was to recover all foreign nationals to go through the disaster identification process," he said.

And a European diplomat in Bangkok, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the fears about mass graves were "blown out of proportion by certain European countries. It seems there was a misunderstanding."

"It could have happened, but by mistake. We have no indication that there was any such order given by the government," the diplomat said.

The confirmed death toll in Thailand is 5,291 -- 2,568 Thais, 2,510 foreigners and 213 whose race could not be determined. The number of missing is put by the government at 3,570, including 1,143 foreigners.

In Europe alone, 21 countries have dead or missing in tsunami-stricken regions, mainly in top tourism destination Thailand.

Meanwhile, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw arrived Friday on Phuket island where he toured the scene of the disaster, met with Britons wounded by the waves, and held talks with Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thaksin was in Phuket to meet with recovery teams searching for missing victims, and to oversee aid to villagers hit by the tsunami.

"I think that the final death toll would be around 7,000, because many were still listed as missing," he said.

Twelve days after the waves smashed into fishing towns and resort areas on the Andaman Sea coast, the search for bodies was focusing on inaccessible areas -- such as dense mangrove thickets and two lakes which were being drained in the devastated fishing town of Baan Nam Khem in Phang Nga province.

Relatively wealthy Thailand did not seek financial help after the disaster but numerous nations have offered practical assistance. China will conduct back-up DNA tests to ensure victims are correctly identified, the public health ministry said.