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Indonesia's Death Toll Varies

'Perhaps We Will Never Know,' President Says

By Alan Sipress and Colum Lynch
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 20, 2005; Page A20

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia, Jan. 19 -- Indonesian officials gave conflicting death tolls Wednesday from last month's tsunami, reporting from 114,000 to more than 160,000 killed, but the country's president said the actual number may never be known.

Health Ministry officials announced that 166,320 people were killed in the Dec. 26 tsunami, including at least 50,000 people previously considered missing.

Hernini and her daughter Putri, 7, are reunited at a refugee camp in Banda Aceh. Indonesian officials have given conflicting reports on number of people missing and killed in the tsunami. (Suzanne Plunkett -- AP)

If confirmed, the increase in Indonesia would boost the death toll in 11 Indian Ocean countries to more than 200,000, including more than 30,000 people in Sri Lanka, 10,000 in India and 5,000 in Thailand. Officials expect those numbers to increase.

An overwhelming majority of the victims were killed in Aceh province, at the northern tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

"We have cross-checked this information, and it is correct," said Doti Indrasanto, a Health Ministry official quoted by the Reuters news agency. He said the decision to list most of the missing as dead was based on reports from officials working at the local level.

But the Social Affairs Ministry, which has also kept count of deaths, reported Wednesday that 114,978 had died and 12,132 were missing.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has called for a review of the death toll. Speaking at an international financial meeting in Jakarta, the capital, he indicated that official death statistics were not precise. "Perhaps we will never know the exact scale of the human casualties," he said.

In New York, U.N. officials said the discrepancy resulted, in part, from a lack of reliable data on the population of the Aceh region.

"It's hard knowing how many people there are in the first place on the west coast of Sumatra," said Brian Grogan, a spokesman for the U.N. emergency relief office. "The records that were kept are probably gone, the local officials are dead or missing. It's a monumental task to come up with accurate figures."

Lynch reported from the United Nations.

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