PALU, INDONESIA (REUTERS/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE) - Indonesian rescue workers will stop searching for the bodies of victims of an earthquake and tsunami on the island of Sulawesi on Thursday (Oct 11), the national disaster mitigation agency said on Sunday, raising anger, sadness and resignation among relatives of those still missing.
The announcement came after the official death toll from the 7.4 magnitude quake and a tsunami it triggered on Sept 28 rose to 1,763.
Bodies are still being recovered, especially from ruins of buildings in the small city of Palu and from neighbourhoods hit by liquefaction, a phenomenon that turns the ground into a roiling quagmire, in the south of the city.
"Evacuation stops on Oct 11," the national disaster mitigation agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho told a news briefing, using an Indonesian word that applies to the search and retrieval of both living and dead people.
"Victims who have not been found are declared missing," he said.
Some limited searching might still be undertaken but large-scale searches with many personnel and heavy equipment would cease, he said.
Many hundreds of people are still buried in mud and debris in the south of Palu, where neighbourhoods were obliterated by liquefaction and desperate relatives have been seeking help to find loved ones.
Dozens of rescuers removed 34 bodies from one place on Saturday.
Dr Sutopo said the debris would be removed from those places and they would be turned into public spaces like parks and sports venues.
"We don't want the community to be relocated to such dangerous places," he said.
Meanwhile, Mr Sutopo said as many as 5,000 people may still be missing from two hard-hit areas in Palu. He based his estimate from local heads in the Balaroa and Petobo areas of Palu city, where entire neighbourhoods disappeared in the twin disaster,
Most of the dead have been found in Palu, the region's main urban centre. Figures for more remote areas, some just re-connected to the outside world by road, are trickling in.
“Many of us are angry that we haven’t found our families and friends and they want to give up?” said Hajah Ikaya, 60, who says she lost her sister, brother-in-law and niece in the Balaroa neighbourhood. They are all missing.
Sulawesi is one of Indonesia's five main islands and, like the others, is exposed to frequent earthquakes and tsunamis.
In 2004, a quake off Sumatra island triggered a tsunami across the Indian Ocean that killed 226,000 people in 13 countries, including more than 120,000 in Indonesia.
A big aid operation is gearing up to help hard-hit communities where some 70,000 people have been displaced.
Indonesia has often been reluctant to be seen as relying on outside help to cope with disasters.
The government shunned foreign aid this year when earthquakes struck the island of Lombok in July and August, but it accepted help from abroad for Sulawesi.
The government says it particularly needs aircraft, generators, tents, water treatment and field medical facilities.