Foreign tsunami ID teams to quit Thailand in Dec
Wed Aug 17, 2005 12:59 PM BST

By Panarat Thepgumpanat BANGKOK (Reuters) - Foreign experts identifying thousands of unknown bodies killed in the December 26 tsunami will leave Thailand at the end of the year when their Thai colleagues will take over, a senior Thai official said on Wednesday.

The world's biggest forensics operation will also move its operations from the resort island of Phuket to Bangkok where work will continue on identifying some 1,500 unknown bodies.

"By the end of this year, all DVI teams from overseas who are helping us identify the bodies will go home and we will move our DVI operations from Phuket to Bangkok," Police General Noppadol Somboonsub said of the 100 Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) experts now in Phuket.

"It will be more convenient for us to seek help from doctors in Bangkok and save a lot on air fares flying down there," Noppadol, who heads the international identification effort.

Thailand's official death toll from the Indian Ocean disaster stands at 5,395, of which 2,436 are believed to be foreigners. An additional 2,817 people are listed as missing.

Noppadol said the number of unidentified bodies had come down to about 1,500 from 3,777 in March.

Among the 2,166 identified bodies returned to their families, 1,639 were foreigners, he said.

The forensic operation -- which at its peak included experts from 35 national police forces worldwide -- uses fingerprints, dental records and DNA to put names to the bodies.

The Sarajevo-based International Commission on Missing Persons and a government lab in China are helping to analyse tissue samples taken from the bodies.

Australia said on Wednesday its contracted partner, disaster specialists Kenyon International, had handed over hospital supplies, computer software and other DVI equipment to the Thailand Tsunami Victim Identification (TTVI) centre.

"Our emphasis is on providing training and capacity-building to the Royal Thai Police," the Australian Embassy in Bangkok said in a statement.

The 1,500 unknown bodies would remain in cold storage in Phuket at least until the end of 2006.

"By the end of next year, we should have a clear picture of what we need to do with the remaining bodies that cannot be identified," he said.

"We may put them in coffins and bury them. If we continue to receive contacts from relatives, we may have to continue to store them in refrigerated containers," he said.

Noppadol suspected that many of the unknown bodies were illegal migrant workers who would never be identified because their relatives in Thailand were afraid to come forward.