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Fire Rages Amid Tsunami Debris

A fire was raging in Indonesia's tsunami-battered Banda Aceh city Tuesday, with strong winds fanning the flames across a debris-strewn area spanning at least half a mile.

The flames were approaching a power generator, raising fears gas and oil inside the machine may explode. The generator is on a barge that the tsunami washed nearly 2 miles inland.

Gas cylinders among the ruins of homes were exploding as they caught fire.

Firefighters at the scene said they were running out of water. In one area, debris blocked three fire trucks from getting closer than yards to the flames and firefighters were dragging dry wood away from the blaze to prevent it from spreading.

No one was known to be living in the area of the blaze, Ulee Lheu, which is part of Banda Aceh, the provincial capital. Much of it was flattened by the Dec. 26 tsunami and detritus is stacked about 10 feet high.

The blaze started Monday night at 8 p.m., said a duty officer at the city fire department, Rusmadi, who like many Indonesians only uses one name. He speculated it had been caused by local residents burning garbage.

The fire was a further blow to Banda Aceh residents who survived the killer walls of water that killed about 40,000 people in this city.

Ibnu Sabi was looking for family members and attempting to retrieve what he could from his ruined house when the flames forced him back. He said he was angry because now even the damaged remnants of his life had been burned.

"This makes it harder for me to find my nine family members," he said.

In related news, Indonesia on Tuesday moved to dispel charges that corrupt officials were siphoning off aid earmarked for tsunami-battered Aceh province, as Southeast Asian nations sought to lure back foreign tourists scared off by the disaster.

Indonesia's Health Ministry, meanwhile, significantly changed the way it tallies deaths due to last month's waves, saying it would only count victims who have been buried and that the missing would retain that status for a full year.

The ministry's death toll dropped from about 170,000 to just over 96,000 under the new rules, but at the same time it added substantially to the missing, bringing the combined total of dead and missing from about 180,000 to 220,000. Most of the missing are presumed dead.

The new procedure also means that two of three Indonesian agencies tallying the dead now agree on a death toll after weeks of large discrepancies. The other, the Social Affairs Ministry, raised its death toll Tuesday by some 9,000 to 123,198 dead, with 12,046 missing.

Both Indonesia and Sri Lanka, the two worst-hit nations, have reported conflicting death toll figures — reflecting both the disaster's enormity and the difficultly of the task.

Sri Lankan officials were still unable to reconcile a discrepancy of more than 7,000 dead, with one ministry saying it has counted 38,195 bodies while another ministry puts the death toll at 30,957. President Chandrika Kumaratunga has been asked to intervene to sort out the problem.

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