The confirmed death toll from the devastating earthquake and tsunami on Indonesia's Sulawesi Island neared 2,000 on Monday, but thousands more people are believed unaccounted for and officials said search teams plan to stop looking for victims later this week.
The official toll hit 1,948, mostly in the hard-hit city of Palu, said Jamaluddin, an official from the disaster task force who uses one name. He corrected the number during a news conference in Jakarta after initially saying it was 1,944. He said a navy ship had docked in the area and opened a field hospital.
Willem Rampangilei, head of the National Board for Disaster Management, said there could be as many as 5,000 victims still buried in deep mud in Balaroa and Petobo, two of Palu's hardest-hit neighborhoods. But he added that number must be verified by his teams because it is an unofficial figure that came from village heads in the area. The Sept. 28 quake caused loose, wet soil to liquefy there. It is too soft to use heavy equipment for recovery, and decomposition of bodies is already advanced.
"It is impossible to rebuild in areas with high liquefaction risk such as Petobo and Balaroa," he said, adding villages there will be relocated.
Talks were underway with religious authorities and surviving family members to decide whether some areas could be turned into mass graves for victims entombed there with monuments built to remember them.
Officials reiterated that the search is expected to end on Thursday. However, the deadline could be extended if needed.