Thursday, April 21, 2005 The Jakarta Post, Gunung Sitoli, Medan

An official announced on Wednesday that the death toll from the earthquake on Nias island in North Sumatra was now at 839.

Of the victims, 682 were residents of Nias regency and the rest were from South Nias regency, Nias Regent Binahati Baeha said during a meeting with North Sumatra Governor Tengku Rizal, Antara news agency reported.

Officials had been reporting the death toll at about 500 victims before the announcement by Binahati, who said the death toll could go even higher as more bodies were discovered in the coming days.

The west coast of Sumatra was rattled by an 8.7-magnitude earthquake on March 28, with Nias island being the worst hit. Thousands fled their homes when the quake struck, fearing a tsunami similar to the one that devastated Aceh in December last year.

Three weeks after the quake and the government has deployed additional ships to speed up the distribution of relief to the survivors on Nias.

The head of the North Sumatra Disaster Coordination Post, Nainggolan, reported that four more ships — Mega Buana, Camar Laut I, Camar Laut II and Rahman Baru — left from Sibolga Port to Nias island carrying aid for the victims.

With these four ships, there are now 11 vessels — four from the Navy, four from the central government and three ferries — distributing aid to quake survivors.

"The ships will operate as long as there is aid waiting to be distributed to Nias. Anyone can use these ships for free," Nainggolan said.

He said there were still several areas in Nias and South Nias regencies that relief workers were having difficulty reaching. These areas include Afulu, Alasa, Lahewa and Sirombu in Nias regency, and Lolomatua, Lolowau and the Batu islands in South Nias regency.

"We hope with the additional ships, all distribution problems will be resolved," he said.

The head of the North Sumatra Trade and Industry Office, T. Azwar Aziz, said his office was the first to make use of the additional ships on Monday. He said three ships were used to transport commodities such as rice, sugar and cooking oil to Nias.

He said the commodities were expected to revive trade activities on the island after the disaster.

"We will sell the commodities to traders on Nias at below-market prices. Our mission is to revive retail activities on Nias," Aziz told The Jakarta Post by phone from Nias.

He said the commodities were of average quality but priced below market prices. For instance, a kilogram of sugar will be sold for Rp 5,000, below the market price of Rp 6,500.

He said trade had begun to return to Nias, spurred by North Sumatra businesspeople buying the island's plantation products such as chocolate and rubber.

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