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Heavy rains hold up search for bodies in Indonesia

Indonesian villagers walks past destroyed houses in an area of a landslide AP – Indonesian villagers walks past destroyed houses in an area of a landslide following last Wednesday's …

JUMANAK, Indonesia – Search teams lost hope of finding any more survivors under the rubble left by a massive earthquake, as torrential rains on Sunday held up aid delivery in the remote hills of western Indonesia where several villages were wiped out.

Rescue teams instead focused on retrieving the rotting bodies from the rubble of the magnitude 7.6 earthquake in Sumatra island, setting up tents for the tens of thousands of homeless and providing them food and drinking water.

Vice President Jusuf Kalla said there was little hope of finding anyone alive.

"We can be sure that they are dead. So now we are waiting for burials," he told reporters.

There is no clear word on the death toll. The United Nations put the figure at 1,100. The government earlier said 715 were dead and 3,000 were missing. But it revised the figure Sunday to 603 confirmed killed and 960 missing, presumably dead.

"With each passing day, the magnitude of the devastation grows," said Mark Fritzler, Save the Children aid group's Indonesia head.

"In addition to the threat of aftershocks, heavy rainfall has challenged our efforts, roads are cut off and we have no power in many areas, but relief workers are reaching families in the hardest hit areas," he said.

The missing include 644 people who were buried alive in four villages in the hills of Padang Pariaman district that were swept away by landslides caused by the quake. Among the victims were 200 to 300 guests at a wedding party in Jumanak village.

The restaurant where the party was being held was damaged but largely intact. A slice of the green wedding cake lay untouched on a plate, covered with flies. The guests were apparently killed when they ran outside as the ground began to tremble but were swept away by the landslide 40 yards (meters) away.

Iseh, a 15-year-old boy, said his sister, Ichi, was the bride. She, the groom and most of the guests were killed.

He said Ichi, 19, had come back to the village for her wedding.

"When the landslide came, the party had just finished. I heard a big boom of the avalanche. I ran outside and saw the trees fall down," Iseh, who like many Indonesians uses only one name, told The Associated Press.

"I tried to get in front of the house with my brothers. We were so afraid. Landslides started coming from all directions. I just ran and then I waited," he said.

On Sunday, hordes of aid workers, military personnel, police and volunteers finally reached the villages, bringing with them heavy earth moving equipment, relieving villagers who had been digging for the rotting corpses with bare hands while surrounded by the stench of death.

But by early afternoon a heavy downpour lashed the area, raising fears of fresh landslides. Police ordered all residents, aid workers, journalists and volunteers to leave. The exodus — on motorcycles, cars and trucks — caused a massive traffic jam on the two-lane road to Padang, the provincial capital that was also badly hit.

The quake had shaken loose entire hillsides, sending a cascade of mud, rocks and trees through Jumanak, Pulau Aiya, Lubuk Lawe and Limo Koto Timur.

Where the villages once stood, there was only mud and broken palm trees — the mountainsides appeared gouged bare as if by a gigantic backhoe. The stench of decomposing bodies was pervasive in the lush green surroundings.

"We are trying to assess the logistics of bringing in supplies especially food," said Gede Suweda, who came to Jumanak with a six-member Sai Rescue team from Bali.

"We have food in Medan and we are trying to work out how to bring it here as quickly as we can. We came to this village because we heard it was very badly hit. But we are not sure of the extent of the deaths or the needs of the people," he said.

In Padang, rescuers gave up hope of finding any survivors in the rubble of the 140-room, Dutch-colonial style Ambacang Hotel. Some 200 people were in the hotel when it collapsed. Search teams have found 29 bodies so far, and no one alive.

"After four days ... to find survivors is almost impossible," said Lt. Col. Harris, the chief of the 50-member rescue team, which comprises military, police and Red Cross personnel. "The smell of decomposing bodies is very strong," said Harris, who uses one name.

According to the National Disaster Management Agency, 83,712 houses, 200 public buildings and 285 schools were destroyed. Another 100,000 buildings and 20 miles (31 kilometers) of road were badly damaged, and five bridges had collapsed.

Save the Children said it has distributed more than 450 tarps and plastic sheets as well as 450 hygiene kits filled with toothpaste, shampoo and bandages to two villages, 30 miles (50 kilometers) outside Padang.

"We need to make sure hygiene is kept up because in situations like these children are a lot more prone to disease," said Jon Bugge, emergency communication director at the U.S.-based nonprofit.

The group estimates that children account for around 50 percent of those displaced by the earthquake. It said tens of thousands of children are at risk of hunger and diseases. Many children are believed to be separated from their parents.

British charity Oxfam said Sunday it had started delivering clean water to Padang and was flying in three water purification plants that could provide enough clean water for more than 40,000 people.

The local water supply was severely damaged by the earthquake, and the cost of water has doubled from 4,500 rupiahs ($0.45) per gallon before the earthquake, to 8,000 rupiahs ($0.82), Oxfam's Indonesia Emergency Response Manager David MacDonald said in a statement.

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Associated Press writers Ali Kotarumalos, Anthony Deutsch, Niniek Karmini and Vijay Joshi in Jakarta contributed to this report.


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