Indonesia quake-tsunami death toll tops 1,700

Indonesia's disaster agency says the death toll from the earthquake and tsunami that struck Sulawesi island has risen to 1,763, with more than 5,000 feared missing.

Hundreds of bodies are believed buried in deep mud after Sept. 28 twin disasters

A villager sits on the ruins of her house destroyed by an earthquake and tsunami in Palu on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi on Saturday. (Tatan Syuflana/Associated Press)

Indonesia's disaster agency says the death toll from the earthquake and tsunami that struck Sulawesi island has risen to 1,763, with more than 5,000 people feared missing.

Agency spokesperson Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said most of the dead were in the city of Palu, and warned many more people could be buried in the rubble the tremor and tsunami left in their wake. In Palu's Petobo and Balaroa neighbourhoods, more than 3,000 homes were damaged or sucked into deep mud when the Sept. 28 quake caused loose soil to liquefy.

"Based on reports from village chiefs in Balaroa and Petobo, some 5,000 people have not been found. Our workers on the ground are trying to confirm this," he said at a news briefing in Jakarta, Indonesia's capital.

Nugroho said that efforts to retrieve decomposed bodies in deep, soft mud were getting tougher and that some people may have fled or been rescued and evacuated. More than 8,000 either injured or vulnerable residents have been flown or shipped out of Palu, while others could have left by land, he said.

Officially, Nugroho said only 265 people are confirmed missing and 152 others still buried under mud and rubble, nine days after the magnitude 7.5 earthquake and powerful tsunami hit Palu and surrounding areas.

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

A villager stands amidst the destruction in Palu. (Tatan Syuflana/Associated Press)

As searchers continued to dig through rubble on Sunday, central Sulawesi governor Loki Djanggola said local officials were meeting religious groups and families of victims to seek their consent to turn neighbourhoods wiped out by liquefaction into mass graves.

He said on local television that survivors in the outlying villages in Petobo, Balaroa and Jono Oge could be relocated and monuments be built in the areas, which now look like wastelands, to remember the victims interred there.

Officials have said that it is not safe for heavy equipment to operate in those areas and that they fear the risk of the spread of disease from decomposed bodies. 

While grappling with immediate relief needs, the government is also mapping out plans to help more than 70,000 people, including tens of thousands of children, who have been displaced by the disasters to rebuild their lives.

Social welfare officials have set up nurseries in makeshift tents as stopgap to keep children safe and help them heal from the trauma. Local television showed children colouring in one such tent in Palu and staff using puppets to minister to affected kids.

Market vendors have resumed business and roadside restaurants were open in Palu but long lines of cars and motorcycles still snarled out of gas stations.

In Jakarta, volunteers walked around thoroughfares empty of cars collecting donations for earthquake victims during the weekly car free morning in the city centre.