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Identifying tsunami victims

Interpol calls for standardized DNA testing for victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami

By | January 7, 2005

Interpol this week called for foreign forensic teams working to identify victims of the Asian tsunami to adhere to the same standard of forensic methods. The appeal was made after a meeting of senior police officials from 26 countries in Lyon, France, on Wednesday (January 5).

The international police organization said that DNA profiles, fingerprints, and other data like tattoos and birthmarks could be processed on a standardized data sheet and entered into a centralized storage point.

One professor of forensic pathology at Hong Kong University, Philip Beh, said the recommendation was wise, as teams in Thailand alone make up the largest disaster victim identification event in recent history.

Beh has been communicating with fellow forensic experts in Thai southern resort towns, where an estimated 2000 foreign tourists are said to have perished in the tsunami waves that struck on December 26.

Beh said it is still unclear how long the identification of bodies will take because different team may be using a variety of methods. "If they have to go through the full work of using all the methods available on all the bodies, it could take a year," he said.

Beh added, however, that the process might be faster than anticipated because experts could skip the traditional methods of looking at dental records and comparing X-rays. "One gets the impression [many teams] are just doing DNA profiling… modern DNA [processing] can be automated," he said.

Toward the week's end, outrage over reports that foreigners had been bagged and buried in unmarked mass graves began to subside. Following one such report that appeared in the German press, German Deputy Foreign Minister Klaus Scharioth asked that the mass graves be investigated.

Thai government spokesmen said that unidentified foreigners were being stored in refrigerated containers. There is no doubt the mass graves do exist, but Thai officials said no foreigners had been buried there.

Unidentified Thai disaster victims are being placed in what officials are calling temporary graves along with electronic chips that identify any personal information know to match the corpse. More than 5000 people have died in the disaster in Southern Thailand; across the region, the death toll from the giant waves is at least 144,000.

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