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Tsunami Toll Remains Elusive

Indonesia's Health Ministry on Wednesday declared more than 70,000 people previously listed as missing as dead, significantly raising — but also adding confusion to — the estimated death toll from last month's tsunami.

The ministry's action brought the number of dead in Indonesia to 166,320 and the overall toll in 11 countries to as many as 221,100, but disarray surrounded the tally, even as President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono called on government agencies to get their numbers straight.

Figures from Indonesia's Social Affairs Ministry, which The Associated Press has used as the basis for its tallies, increased the number of dead by just 261 on Wednesday to 114,978, a far smaller number. The ministry still lists 12,132 people as missing.

The United Nations on Tuesday listed the number of dead in the Dec. 26 disaster at 165,493.

Prior to the release of the Health Ministry's figures, the AP toll was between 162,228 and 169,503, owing to a discrepancy between figures from two government agencies in Sri Lanka.

The conflicting figures from within the Indonesian and Sir Lankan governments has thrown the death tally from the disaster into confusion nearly four weeks after the killer waves laid waste across thousands of kilometers (miles) of coastlines in southern Asia and Africa.

Officials have frequently cautioned that compiling accurate figures for the dead or missing is almost impossible, and that a definitive total of dead may never be reached.

Meanwhile, Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayuda sought to reassure donor countries that billions of dollars pledged to aid tsunami victims would not be siphoned off by corrupt officials, saying that Indonesia had appointed the accounting firm Ernst & Young to track international donations.

Foreign governments and international agencies have pledged around $4 billion in aid to the region. Indonesia, regularly listed as one the world's most corrupt countries, is expected to get the largest chunk.

"There is no need to be suspicious of Indonesia's management of funds," Wirayuda said. "It is in our interest that the money is managed in a transparent and accountable way."

Local anti-graft activists have said they fear that about 30 percent of the aid money projected to be spent on Indonesia's recovery could be stolen — about the same amount they estimate disappears each year from the national government's budget.

Japan issued a brief tsunami warning after a magnitude 6.8 earthquake struck off its eastern coast, sending a scare through the vast zone still struggling to recover from last month's disaster. But officials said the waves generated were less than a foot high and posed little danger.

By contrast, the waves triggered by the Dec. 26 earthquake rose as high as 30 feet.

Japan's meteorological agency said the quake was centered 190 miles south of Tokyo, where it was hardly felt. There were no reports of damage or injuries.

At an international disaster conference in Kobe, Japan, the U.N. humanitarian chief said the United Nations should take the lead in creating a tsunami early-warning system in the Indian Ocean. Start-up costs could come from the money already pledged by countries around the world, said Jan Egeland, U.N. undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs.

International health officials in Indonesia's battered Aceh province warned that hundreds of thousands of people remain at risk of disease, as stretched medical teams attempt to prevent outbreaks of measles, malaria and diarrhea, contracting measles, malaria and other diseases.

Emergency medical workers are "straining to stay ahead of a wide range of threats to a severely weakened, still disoriented and beleaguered population," said Bob Dietz, the World Health Organization spokesman in the provincial capital of Banda Aceh. "I still sense a precarious situation."

Dietz said in a telephone interview that some 20,000 children had been vaccinated for measles, and that moves to vaccinate up to a million others were being hampered by a lack of qualified medical staff.

"Measles kills 30 to 40 percent of kids it hits in a situation like this and possibly more given so many of these kids are weakened," said Dietz.

There have so far only been isolated cases of the highly contagious disease reported.

In southern Thailand, more than 20,000 Buddhists, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs joined hands for an interfaith memorial service in a sports stadium to remember the tsunami victims.

Participants — many dressed in white, a traditional color of mourning in Asia — released paper hot air balloons into the sky, a Thai ritual meant to lift the spirits of the dead. The disaster killed 5,323 people — more than a third of them foreigners — and left 3,115 people missing in Thailand.

In a rare show of unity in Sri Lanka, bitterly divided government and opposition leaders jointly launched a $3.5 billion project to rebuild homes after the disaster.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga laid a foundation stone for the first of more than 6,000 new homes being built as part of a plan to resettle thousands of families in palm-fringed, southeastern Hambantota district — one of many areas battered by the tsunami.

Thousands of villagers, some shielding themselves from the blazing midday sun with black umbrellas, watched the ceremony.

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