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Forgotten islands emptied of life

Dec. 27: People gathered on beaches in southern India and scattered flower petals into the sea at dawn to pray for the safe return of those washed away by Sunday's tsunami as the death toll in the disaster rose beyond 24,000 across seven countries in South Asia.

Over 6,500 of the deaths were in India.

Some 700 nautical miles from Tamil Nadu, which bore the brunt of the 33-foot wall of water that crashed into its shores, in a remote part of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands virtually no one was left to come to the beach and pray.

Around 3,000 people were feared killed on Car Nicobar and islands near it. These islands lie close to the epicentre of the world's worst earthquake in 40 years off Sumatra, which gave birth to the killer tsunami, or train of waves.

Such was the power of the earthquake that US scientists said Sumatra, an Indonesian island, shifted some 100 feet under its impact.

The inspector-general of police of the Andamans, S.B. Deol, said: 'Another 2,000 people are missing and are believed to have died.'

There was no information from some of the more remote, southern islands in the group spread over around 800 km. Twenty-eight tremors, or 'after-shocks', were felt in the Andamans since yesterday. One, at 6.20 this morning, was measured 6 on the Richter scale. Yesterday's quake off Sumatra had a magnitude of 9.

Since early this morning, air force planes made sorties, some to locate stranded villagers, others to drop food and supplies. 'The destruction has been enormous,' Deol said. 'About 60 per cent of Car Nicobar has been destroyed and huts and men washed away.'

A PTI correspondent reported seeing bodies strewn all over the beach.

Rescue workers said the impact of the waves had been so severe in Car Nicobar that people were flung into the forests and some had even been found on top of trees.

The majority of those missing were from Nancowry island, not too far from the epicentre of the quake. Till evening, no rescue worker had been able to reach the island.

At a shelter in Port Blair, Ambika Rai who had been rescued with her two children from Car Nicobar, said her husband was washed away in front of her eyes.

'One second I see him some distance away and then in an instant he is swallowed up by this wave and sucked into the ocean. The sight will haunt me for the rest of my life.'

Officials in Tamil Nadu reported more deaths today, bringing the toll there to 3,200. Some 1,700 had died at Nagapattinam alone, where bodies lay in piles in village after village. Most of the dead were women and children.

Residents feared a much higher toll than what was being put out officially. At the Muslim pilgrim centre of Nagore, volunteers from a cluster of 11 mosques were digging for bodies through a thick layer of silt.

'It may take at least a week for all the bodies to be recovered and properly accounted for,' said M. Haroon Ismail, a schoolteacher.

Farther up north in Cuddalore, mass graves were being dug. 'We must have dug some seven or eight pits and buried 25, 30, 35 bodies in each of them,' Reuters quoted gravedigger Shekhar as saying.

In neighbouring Sri Lanka, military spokesman Daya Ratnayaka said 10,029 people had been killed. About 200 of them were foreign tourists.

Indonesia feared the number of dead could swell to as much as 10,000 in north Sumatra alone.

Thailand evacuated injured survivors from its southern tourist beaches and officials said the national death toll was expected to top 1,000.

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