LONDON, Jan. 5 -- The first six coffins carrying the bodies of Swedish tourists killed in southern Asia's tsunami arrived home early Wednesday morning from Thailand, and later in the day, millions fell silent throughout Europe for three poignant minutes to memorialize the 140,000 or more dead.
Meanwhile, leaders in Sweden, the Netherlands and Britain sought to fend off criticism that they had responded either late or inappropriately in the first days following the massive sea surge that claimed the lives of several thousand Europeans along with tens of thousands of Asians.
One by one, coffins draped in the blue-and-yellow Swedish flag were carried off a Hercules military transport plane at Stockholm's Arlanda airport by a six-team honor guard in an icy, glistening drizzle at 3 a.m. Tearful family members placed flowers on the caskets, which were loaded into six hearses while Prime Minister Goeran Persson, King Carl XVI Gustaf and other government officials and members of the royal family looked on.
At noon, all across the continent -- from the stock trading floors of Frankfurt and London to the streets of Stockholm and Amsterdam -- Europeans stood for three minutes in recognition of the enormity of the disaster.
"We will remain silent for three minutes in face of the suffering of relatives who have lost their loved ones," Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende told the parliament in the Netherlands, which so far has reported six confirmed dead.
Sweden has suffered the most losses among European countries, with 52 confirmed dead, 827 confirmed missing and 1,500 others unaccounted for. Critics continued to hammer Persson's government for its delayed response to the disaster following the Dec. 26 tsunami.
Despite early reports of the scale of the tragedy, Persson remained with his family at Harpsumd, the prime minister's official country estate, until Monday afternoon, while Foreign Minister Laila Freivalds attended the theater Sunday evening. The cabinet did not meet in emergency session until Tuesday, and a Swedish rescue team did not arrive in Thailand until Wednesday.
"At first they did absolutely nothing," said P.M. Nilsson, editorial page editor of Expressen, the newspaper whose editorials have led the attack on the government's handling of the crisis. "They didn't even talk to each other until Monday afternoon after they saw the headlines."
Persson has held news conferences daily since returning to Stockholm. Nilsson said the prime minister's efforts have helped him to regain much of the public trust by speaking frankly but calmly about the country's losses and saying he respected criticism voiced by distressed relatives of the victims.
Johan Remkes, the Dutch interior minister, fended off calls that he should resign for not interrupting a vacation in an unaffected part of Thailand last week and going to the scene of the devastation, where many Dutch people had been spending the holiday. On Wednesday, during a visit to the hard-hit Phuket island in Thailand, Remkes defended his decision of last week, saying, "I came to the conclusion that a stray minister here would not have added any value."
In Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair told BBC radio that he had been "intimately involved" in "all decisions at all times" during the aftermath of the tsunami. Blair had refused to cut short his family's vacation on Egypt's Red Sea, triggering criticism from opposition politicians and some newspapers here that he was failing to provide leadership.