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Foreign office: "We are fighting against time"

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13:01 CET+01:00

On Thursday afternoon Sweden's prime minister Göran Persson warned that 1,000 Swedes could have died following the tsunami triggered by Sunday morning's earthquake off the coast of Sumatra.

But in a press conference on Friday morning, Sweden's ambassador in Thailand, Jonas Hafström, said that the foreign office had increased its estimation of the number of Swedes missing to 3,500.

Speaking in Phuket, Hafström also emphasised to journalists that he was urging the Thai authorities not to cremate the bodies of Swedes who had perished in the disaster.

"The bodies which can be taken home and buried in Swedish soil will be taken home," he said, but acknowledged that some would not be retrieved.

"To be honest, we are fighting against time."

More and more assistance is arriving in Thailand from Sweden to help victims. News agency TT reported that the Swedish Rescue Services Agency (SRSA) has had teams in place for two days and on Friday they will be joined by an identification commission consisting of pathologists, dental experts and forensics experts.

Swedish nurses, priests and welfare specialists are now in place in Thailand, and personnel from Bris, the children's charity, are on their way.

On Saturday ambulance planes are expected to return to Sweden. According to Svenska Dagbladet, Swedish patients are now beginning to leave the hospitals in Phuket.

"A good 500 Swedes have been in hospital in the area," said the paper's Inger Atterstam. "A number of them have been taken home on normal flights. Many have broken arms and legs, are bruised and have big, deep lacerations."

SvD said that 95% of the Swedes who have been in hospital in Phuket should have left the country by the end of Friday. While they are relieved, they have also praised Thai hospital staff.

"Many are so grateful that they are almost in tears about the help they have had from the Thais and they think they've been well cared for. But naturally they are glad to be going home and leaving this nightmare situation," said Atterstam.

But for families of those missing, the outlook is increasingly bleak. Both in Thailand and at home in Sweden via the internet, relatives continue to scan hospital lists, desperately hoping for information about loved ones. Hundreds of names and photographs have been printed in the country's newspapers and the headline everywhere is the same: "Do you know where they are?".

Sweden's ambassador told reporters that foreign office staff were working with the Thai authorities to ensure that anybody found alive was taken off the missing lists as soon as possible.

"Missing people are still being recovered now and then," he said. "But the hope of finding people alive is falling as time goes by."

According to the governor of Phang Nga province, which includes the resort of Khao Lak, the number confirmed dead in Thailand by Friday morning was 4,351, with over 6,000 still missing.

Khao Lak was one of the worst-hit resorts in Thailand and was particularly popular among Swedes.

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.

Sources: Dagens Nyheter, Svenska Dagbladet, Expressen, Aftonbladet

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