PANGKALAN BUN - Indonesia's chief of armed forces, General Moeldoko, has lauded the efforts of rescuers searching for AirAsia flight QZ8501 amid difficult conditions and urged them to soldier on, as he visited two ships involved in the multi-national operation.
"I told my men, 'I know you are facing difficulty, but keep trying. I don't want you to retreat,'" he said on Tuesday on his first visit to Pangkalan Bun since the search operation began.
Three hours earlier, he flew out on a US Seahawk chopper in heavy rain, to visit American vessel USS Sampson.
On arrival, he chatted and had tea with Commanding Officer Steve Foley in the captain's cabin before going to the officer's mess to look at a chart of the area and where the ship had been searching.
"I respect and am proud of your hard work," he told the USS Sampson crew in an address from the bridge of the ship. "Thank you very much."
He then visited Indonesian vessel KRI Banda Aceh before returning to the coastal town of Pangkalan Bun, where Indonesian rescuers head out daily to look for the remains of the plane which crashed in the Java Sea on Dec 28 as it flew from Surabaya to Singapore.
He told reporters that he saw for himself that "the environment is not easy", but that "our men are working very hard and risking our lives".
Poor weather meant that only two more bodies were recovered on Tuesday, bringing it to a total of 39. With 162 people on board the flight, it meant that three-quarters of the relatives of the victims are still waiting for news of their loved ones.
Regarding the bodies which have not been found, Gen Moeldoko reiterated his offer - first made on Monday - for families to visit the search area and scatter flowers. He said he would prepare planes and vessels for them.
"They can travel anytime - tomorrow, any day. It's up to them," he said.
Officials here however told The Straits Times on Tuesday that they have not been informed of any families taking up this offer so far.
Gen Moeldoko also thanked all the countries which were involved in the search, including Singapore.