Indonesia mulls making quake areas mass graves

Palu residents being evacuated from the city on board an RNZAF Hercules

The tens of thousands left homeless by the disaster are scattered across Palu and beyond.

The 7.5 magnitude quake on September 28 brought down many buildings in the small city on Sulawesi island, 1,500 km (30 miles) northeast of Jakarta, while tsunami waves smashed into its beachfront.

The New Zealand Air Force has flown 120 residents out of the earthquake-ravaged Indonesian city of Palu. "Our workers on the ground are trying to confirm this", he said at a news briefing in Jakarta, Indonesia's capital. "It is not easy to obtain the exact number of those trapped by landslides, or liquefaction, or mud".

The government targets to end search operations by Thursday, almost two weeks after the disaster, at which time those unaccounted for will be declared missing and considered dead, Mr Nugroho said.

Officially, 683 people remain missing, though some put that figure far higher.

The extent of the destruction as the aircraft flew into Palu on Friday afternoon was worse than he anticipated, Natapu said.

The spokesman estimated that 5,000 people could still be missing in Baleroa and Petobo, which had been badly hit by soil liquefaction - a process where the soil becomes saturated with water, causing it to erupt into torrents that topple buildings.

There are fears that vast numbers of decomposing bodies could still be buried beneath Petobo and Balaroa - two areas virtually wiped off the map.

At the massive Balaroa government housing complex, where the sheer force of the quake turned the earth temporarily to mush, soldiers wearing masks to ward off the stench of death clambered over the giant mounds of mud, brick and cement.

Meanwhile in Sulawesi, 82,000 military, civilians and volunteers continue in the search and rescue effort, even as the island had been rocked by 451 aftershocks since the powerful quake.

Michael Lesmeister, director of Germany's ISAR-Germany rescue group, said landing permits for his staff and cargo had come through and, after a three-day wait, they were set to install a water-purification system in Palu.

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The government has said it will declare those communities flattened in Palu as mass graves and leave them untouched.

"I'd feel very sad if the search mission ends because there are so many still missing and buried", he said.

The national disaster agency says 1,700 homes in one neighbourhood alone were swallowed up.

Traumatised survivors are desperate for help.

Sulawesi is one of Indonesia's five main islands.

"They erupted in cheers and gave a thumbs-up sign before we took off", Natapu said.

Hercules planes carrying tons of donations from Australia and the United States reached Palu yesterday morning, as did a plane chartered by Save the Children and another carrying a South African medical team.

The country continues to receive worldwide assistance, but the destruction is not able to deliver it to anyone who needs it. Planes with humanitarian aid to Indonesia sent 11 countries.

But relief workers face a monumental task ahead.

They are hoping more aid will arrive in the shattered city of Palu and the surrounding Donggala district on the island of Sulawesi.

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