Chishan, Taiwan (AFP) Aug 17, 2009
Taiwanese soldiers searched remote areas for survivors and bodies Monday as officials said over 1,600 people needed airlifting to safety nine days after Typhoon Morakot.
The official death toll rose to 126, but President Ma Ying-jeou has warned the number could climb to more than 500, with hundreds feared buried.
About 40,000 troops began a new phase of the rescue operation, shifting focus to combing remote areas, said Transport Minister Mao Chih-kuo, who is leading the emergency response.
A total of 1,638 people still had to be airlifted as of Sunday night from 44 severely damaged villages, he said.
But many were unwilling to leave their ancestral homes, fearing they would not be allowed to return, according to officials.
"Most of the people still stranded on the mountain refuse to leave," military spokesman Colonel Tai Chan-Teh told AFP.
It could take up to six months to rebuild roads and bridges and those refusing to leave may have to be removed by force, Mao said.
"One could hardly imagine the cost if those people continue to stay on the mountains and all of their daily needs have to be airlifted," he said.
At a makeshift morgue in the southern Chishan township, a senior police officer said work was also going slowly. He said only about 50 bodies had been processed because corpses were buried so deep.
"We have been working here round-the-clock for days. But while we hope to help families recover the bodies of their loved ones on the mountain, it is not easy to find them. The mud they were buried in is often a few stories high," the officer, who only gave his surname, Chang, told AFP.
As relatives took it upon themselves to search for loved ones, the transport ministry blocked roads in five seriously affected counties to prevent the public from disrupting official rescue efforts.
The typhoon has turned into a political storm for Taiwan's president, who acknowledged widespread public anger over the weekend by apologising to survivors for failing to recognise the scale of the crisis in time.
"I will take full responsibility whatever the blame is. After all, I'm the president of this country," Ma told CNN.
Aid from around the world continued to pour in Monday as a five-member European Union delegation arrived to assess how the EU could best help, the foreign ministry said.
A second United States military C-130 transport aircraft landed in southern Taiwan on Monday, delivering water purification tablets, the defence ministry said.
The first flight arrived Sunday, marking the first US military activity in Taiwan since 1979, when troops based here left because Washington shifted its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing.
The first of two US heavy-lift military helicopters also arrived Monday, the ministry said.
The helicopters, each capable of carrying up to 16 tonnes, can be used to airlift excavators and bulldozers to the mountainous areas that mudslides have left inaccessible by road, Taiwanese media said.
Beijing also offered large helicopters used during last year's earthquake in China. But Taipei declined the offer due to national security concerns, the United Daily News reported, citing unnamed defence officials.
Typhoon Morakot slammed into Taiwan on August 8, dumping more than three metres (120 inches) of rain that unleashed floods and mudslides which tore through houses and buildings, ripped up roads and smashed bridges.
It was the worst-ever typhoon to strike Taiwan, the president said on Friday, saying the scale of the damage was more severe than a 1959 typhoon that killed 667 people and left around 1,000 missing.
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