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Persson: "The worst catastrophe of our time"

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18:57 CET+01:00

54 Swedes have been reported dead by news agencies in Thailand following the earthquake on Sunday morning. In a press conference on Wednesday afternoon, Prime Minister Göran Persson warned that "this number is going to increase significantly".

As the overall death toll climbs over 100,000 in the region, there are considerable differences in estimates of the number of Swedish citizens still missing. The Prime Minister referred to "more than 1,000", and many newspapers are quoting around 1,500. But according to Svenska Dagbladet, that does not include independent travellers and in fact the total missing could be over 2,000.

Sweden appears to have lost more people than any country outside those directly hit by the massive tsunami. Göran Persson said that New Year's Day would be a day of mourning and asked Swedes to fly their flags at half mast.

"It is now clear that this is a catastrophe and a tragedy of enormous proportions," he said in the press conference, which was broadcast live from Rosenbad on Swedish Radio.

"The great numbers of people involved, dead, injured, shocked, relatives, probably make this the worst of our time.

"This is going to influence daily life in Sweden for a long time. The number of people missing is very big, as is the number of injured. The number of deaths is going to rise significantly. We must stick together and support each other."

Dagens Nyheter noted that the government pledged to bring home for burial any Swedes who had died.

All of the Swedish papers' web sites have been carrying pictures and personal details of countless dozens of Swedes who are still missing, and inevitably attention is focused on the plight of children, either missing or who have lost their parents.

Aftonbladet reported that up to 400 children have been lost. In Khao Lak, one of the worst-affected resorts where many of the tourists were Scandinavians, an entire play group was swept away, while at the Orchid Resort Hotel there are said to be ten Swedish families which have each lost at least one child.

There are occasional happy stories of loved ones reunited, children found and "miracle" survivals, but mostly the news just gets worse.

In the face of such despair, people are becoming increasingly angry and there is growing criticism not just of the time it took the Swedish government to react to the disaster, but also of the lack of preparation for dealing with such an event.

Foreign minister Laila Freivalds spent Wednesday visiting the disaster area in Thailand, and she responded to Swedes there who accused the government of being slow to send help.

"Our representatives from the Swedish embassy were the first on the scene, but I understand the criticism because this is such a big catastrophe affecting so many people," she said. "I understand that the victims need help now."

"We saw that this was serious, and that's why we've made sure that we've brought in people from Stockholm. But clearly, from the beginning maybe we didn't fully understand the scale of how many people would be injured and dead."

For a list of Sweden's emergency numbers and internet links concerning the Asian earthquake click here.

If you wish to donate money to the disaster fund click here.

Sources: Dagens Nyheter, Svenska Dagbladet, Expressen, Aftonbladet

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