Death toll climbs

Indonesia World leaders were heading to southern Asia on Tuesday to get a firsthand glimpse of the devastation wreaked by last week’s earthquake and tsunamis, as well as hammer out a plan to help the millions of victims, while the death toll neared 150,000.

The number was expected to soar even higher with relief workers saying the west coast of Indonesia’s Sumatra island, which was closest to the Dec. 26 quake, has been a lot harder hit than previously thought and tens of thousands more are expected to be dead.

But rushing aid to anyone still alive in the area has proved a nightmare, with the tiny handful of roads there having been washed away. While rescuers work round-the-clock on the ground, leaders from stricken nations and world donors will meet in Indonesia on Thursday to iron out problems in coordinating an unprecedented US$2 billion global relief operation. They will also discuss an ambitious plan to set up an Indian Ocean tsunami warning system.

Asian leaders including Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi – whose nation’s US$500 million pledge makes it the biggest contributor so far – are to attend the summit, along with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, World Bank President James Wolfensohn, and top European Union officials.

The death toll has leapt by the tens of thousands on an almost daily basis. It was at 139,253 Tuesday.

Indonesia has been worst hit with 94,081 deaths, Sri Lanka has 30,196, India 9,479 and Thailand 5,187. Sri Lanka, India and Thailand said they were preparing to increase their tallies by more than 15,000, by declaring thousands of missing as dead.

Jan Egeland, the U.N. humanitarian chief, said it would keep climbing, especially on Sumatra where the number of dead has already reached more than 90,000.

Aid workers originally thought the island’s northern province, Aceh, took the brunt of the temblor and tsunami, but now believe the low-lying western coastline was hardest hit.

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