After weathering days of criticism of his administration, Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou apologised on Saturday for the government's slow response to the devastation caused by Typhoon Morakot amid fears the disaster's death toll could reach 500.
AFP - Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou bowed to public anger Saturday, apologising for his government's slow response to Typhoon Morakot, which devastated central and southern parts of the island.
Ma spoke at the end of a week in which his administration faced mounting criticism for failing to recognise in time the magnitude of the crisis as mudslides cut off hundreds of villages, leaving them only accessible by air.
"We could have done better and we could have been faster. But we weren't better and we weren't faster. Of course we are very sorry," Ma told reporters while inspecting relief efforts in Nantou county.
The official death toll rose to 123 but Ma has warned that number could jump to 500, with hundreds feared buried beneath the rubble in the village of Hsiaolin alone.
The rescue operation nearly doubled in size over 24 hours with close to 100,000 troops battling Saturday to cross raging rivers and collapsed bridges to reach victims, the defence ministry said.
The navy joined efforts to help typhoon victims, many who have been without food and water for a week, the ministry said.
About 3,200 remained stranded in southern Kaohsiung, the hardest-hit county where most of the rescue missions are concentrated, officials said.
An additional 3,700 people remained cut off in southeastern Taitung county, while 9,000 were caught in central Chiayi county, local government officials said Saturday.
In the village of Hsinfa, where mudslides buried at least 32 people, rescue worker Kevin Kuo said some bodies were too deep under the ground and would never be recovered.
"The mudslides were three- to five-stories high. It's basically impossible for us to go that deep," Kuo said.
The National Police Agency asked those who had lost contact with loved ones since the typhoon to provide DNA samples at local police stations to help identify the dead.
As the rescue operation continued, weeping relatives set up makeshift shrines as close as possible to devastated villages to honour the belief that the souls of the dead return home after seven days.
"Grandpa, grandma, father, mother, why did you leave me all alone?" a young woman cried as she knelt on the ground in Hsiaolin, saying she lost 44 relatives in the mudslides, an AFP photographer at the scene said.
Mourners laid out slippers, poured rice wine and burned paper money to comfort the dead.
"My little girl, do you hear mummy calling you? Mummy's missing you!" a woman identified only by her surname Liu wailed outside the flattened village in footage broadcast on private cable news channel ETTV.
Liu said she lost her 15-year-old daughter in the landslides.
Scores of people protested when Ma later tried to throw the opening pitch at a baseball in central Taichung city. He left without throwing the ball.
Some spectators gave him the thumbs-down sign and security guards scuffled with protesters trying to unfurl a banner in the stands.
"So many people were killed and you attend a baseball game. Can you sleep at night?" an unidentified man shouted in front of TV cameras outside the stadium.
However, Ma found an unlikely ally in Chinese action star Jet Li, who helped comfort survivors and unload supplies at a relief centre in Kaohsiung county.
"It will get better. Everybody is working very hard. We should have more understanding and give more encouragement," Li told reporters, sporting a Red Cross cap.
The night before Li and Hong Kong actor Andy Lau joined other celebrities in answering phones as two Friday night televised fundraisers brought in more than 1.1 billion Taiwan dollars (33 million US) to aid typhoon victims.
China has donated 16 million US dollars while Hong Kong has donated 6.4 million US dollars, government officials said.
The rest of the international community has donated more than two million US dollars and the Vatican contributed 50,000 dollars with Pope Benedict XVI offering his prayers for the victims, the foreign ministry said.
Morakot 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.
Date created : 2009-08-15