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In a press conference on Thursday afternoon prime minister Göran Persson announced that 44 Swedes have been identified among the dead in Thailand, following the tsunami triggered by Sunday morning’s earthquake off the coast of Sumatra
“But the number of dead Swedes could reach hundreds, maybe thousands,” he said.
The government has so far been able to contact around 2,000 people on the missing list, but Persson said that there are still “tremendous numbers” unaccounted for. A text message sent by the foreign office to 10,000 people in the area apparently had a good response and the ministry now has 90 people handling phone calls.
“We have worked intensively to gather information from relatives, travel companies and people on the ground. Incredible numbers of Swedes have been travelling in the area and we expect to have brought home all Swedes who are able to be transported by Saturday,” he said.
On Thursday seven evacuation planes landed back in Sweden with around a thousand people on board.
Facing considerable public anger for the way in which the government has handled the crisis, the prime minister said that such criticism was natural, and that people caught up in the disaster obviously wanted help sooner than they got it.
“There is nothing worse than to lose a relative, and to know that someone is injured on the other side of the world,” he said.
“Then the anger, anxiety and criticism grows. It is a natural reaction in a catastrophe of this scale. In such a situation a government can also be criticised – then the question is whether or not you could have done any better.”
Göran Persson also said that the catastrophe is still just beginning:
“When schools and workplaces open after the holidays, many seats will stand empty. There is going to be great uncertainty for a long time.”
The three Swedish charter companies My Travel, Fritidsresor and Apollo say that 1,250 of their guests are still unaccounted for. But according to Svenska Dagbladet, the number of Swedes still missing could be as high as 2,500, considering the numbers of independent travellers in the south of Thailand at the time the wave struck.
Many of them were staying at the resort of Khao Lak, one of the worst-hit parts of Thailand. Norwegian sources have reported that between 3,000 and 4,000 corpses have been found there and the Thai prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, warned that 80% of those missing are likely to have perished.
In the meantime, the appeals continue and the lists grow in Swedish newspapers and websites.
While Göran Persson said that efforts were focused on bringing home all injured Swedes, he added that the Swedish government had told the Thai authorities that no bodies should be cremated. As many as possible, he said, would be brought home for burial.
“Now that we’re saying it could be more than a thousand is an indication of the kind of figures we’re dealing with,” he said.