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LONDON, England (July 23, 1998 - BBC/World/Asia-Pacific/Tuqiri)---The gruesome task of retrieving bodies from a corpse-clogged lagoon in Papua New Guinea has been called off with officials planning to seal off the area devastated by three tidal waves.

Rescue officials welcomed the move to restrict access to Sissano Lagoon on the remote northwest coast and let the bodies decompose. The process could take up to five years.

Australian and Papua New Guinean media say once the area is sealed off, officials are considering blasting open a passage in the lagoon to let in the sea.

A spokesman for police Commissioner Peter Aigilo, controller of the state of emergency declared by Prime Minister Bill Skate, said the area may have to be sealed off for up to five years. The corpses had badly decomposed after five days in the tropical sun and were posing health risks, he added.

The risk of disease from hundreds of bloated corpses had grown and wild animals have been threatening rescuers.

"There's sharks and crocodiles and all sorts of things living in that swampland," said Col. Rod West, commander of the Australian defense force relief contingent.

"It's a matter of drawing a line in the sand and saying we've done as much as we can. If we do any more we are starting to put the search parties and burial teams at risk," he said.

The official death toll from the three tidal waves that struck on Friday night has been reduced from 1,600 to 1,300, many of them children. About 3,500 survivors have now been accounted for but some 3,000 people are still missing.

Survivors are still being airlifted to field hospitals where many face a second fight for their lives. Most suffered broken bones and deep cuts from flying debris and coral and the injuries are now turning gangrenous. Australian medical workers are reporting an increase in amputations.

The waves wiped out entire villages. Up to 120 square kilometers (45 square miles) will be sealed off in an area that once was home to between 6,000 and 10,000 people.

Returning villagers are living among the dead, and Vice Finance Minister Andrew Kumbakor called on the government to resettle the survivors.

"The government must relocate these people," said Mr. Kumbakor.

"I am calling on the government to seal Sissano, to make it a restricted zone, and allow natural decay to destroy the rotting corpses," he said.

Hundreds of bodies have been buried in the sand where they were found among their huts.

Dogs and pigs are scavenging through the shallow graves and gunfire can be heard as shooting parties kill the scavengers. Villagers have been warned not to drink local water or eat anything from the lagoon, but food and fresh water are running low and contaminated water poses new risks.

"We will have to monitor to see if typhoid and cholera occurs," Mr. Kumbakor said.

On Wednesday hundreds of the victims were burnt in mass graves in an attempt to prevent the spread of potentially lethal diseases. The lack of proper burial and the inability to carry out proper funeral rites is an extra source of distress for relatives.



By Paul McGeough

VANIMO, Papua New Guinea (July 23, 1998 - BBC/Tuqiri)---As reports filtered in of hundreds more bodies yet to be recovered in the wake of the West Sepik tsunami, shooting parties were sent into the disaster zone yesterday in an effort to prevent the spread of disease by abandoned dogs and pigs digging up the shallow graves of the dead in their search for food.

Australian health experts in Vanimo warned that many of the dead - especially the hundreds buried in the middle of villages in which people still live - might have to be exhumed and buried in deeper mass graves dug with bulldozers.

The death toll now stands at 1,600. However, a missionary volunteer, Brother Jim Coucher, said yesterday that he had received a military report that as many as 1,000 more bodies were hidden in debris that litters Sissano lagoon, the waterway behind the coastal strip that took the brunt of Friday's three giant waves.

"How do you search a swamp?" he said. "I have been over that water so many times, but I still cannot grasp the immensity of this task."

The officer in charge of the Australian Defense Force's field hospital in Vanimo, Major Paul Taylor, said: "Reburial has been an issue in previous disasters, and once we are on top of the casualty load we will have to shift our attention to such preventative matters.

"In Rwanda, many of the dead were buried in a way that kept down the fly problem, but they had to be dug up and placed in mass graves. If the graves in the villages here are being dug up by animals then they will have to be reburied - further away and deeper."

There is a stench in the air from Vanimo to Aitape. When tracking the coast by helicopter, packs of dogs can be seen rooting in the shallow graves. Pigs are also rummaging among the dead.

The risk is greatest in villages that were not destroyed. In Malo, at the eastern end of the swathe of destruction, much of the village remains, but more than 160 graves have been dug right where the victims were found - between the houses in which people still live.

At Malo village, PNG Defense Forces Corporal Pascal Wandia said medical teams were warning villagers not to drink from local water supplies because of the risk of contamination by animals which had been digging in the graves. Relief helicopters with great balloon-like bags slung beneath them are replenishing village water tanks.

At Ramu village, a local councilor, Mr. Pias Konai, said refugees emerging from the jungle had reported heavy contamination of local water supplies by floating corpses.

"These rotting bodies are destroying the water, so now these people will not go back to where they have lived for months. The problem could get worse. Many of the dead are in very shallow graves and high tide could easily uncover them, which would cause an epidemic. So we are telling them to come and stay in this village till a long-term decision is made on where they are to live."

At the ADF field hospital in Vanimo, officers are so afraid of contamination that patients from the disaster area are being given water flown in from Sydney.

Warrant Officer Bill Alexander said: "I expect that access to the disaster area will have to be restricted to reduce the risk of disease being spread by rodents and the like."

The hospital has done more than 200 operations since Monday morning and yesterday the flow of patients was easing.

"However, we're getting into gangrene with some of the people who are only just coming out of the hills and the jungle," Warrant Officer Alexander said.

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