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Police seek DNA match for tsunami victims

Forensic experts face a mammoth task to identify the dead Keystone

Police in Switzerland have begun collecting DNA samples to help identify the hundreds of Swiss now presumed dead in the Asian tsunami disaster.

This content was published on January 4, 2005 - 18:12

The move came as police chiefs from around the world, including Switzerland, met at Interpol headquarters on Wednesday to coordinate the process of identifying victims.

Thousands of foreign tourists are still unaccounted for in Thailand and Sri Lanka more than a week after tidal waves wreaked devastation across south Asia, killing at least 145,000.

On Tuesday Swiss President Samuel Schmid said hundreds of Swiss tourists were likely to have died in the disaster, dwarfing the official figure of 23 confirmed dead.

“The number of Swiss victims is much higher than we assumed so far. On December 26, several hundred Swiss people lost their lives,” Schmid told a news conference in the capital, Bern.

Most of the dead and missing Swiss were on holiday in Thailand.

Police list

Arnold Bolliger, vice-director of the Federal Police Office and chief of staff for international relations and crisis management, told swissinfo that an initial list of 105 presumed dead had been sent out to cantonal police forces.

Officers will now go out and collect the post-mortem data needed for identification. If items likely to contain DNA, such as toothbrushes, cannot be found at a victim’s home, blood samples will be taken from relatives.

Hundreds more names are expected to be sent out within the next few days.

“We have a list of about 420 people still listed as missing, but we are waiting for one or two more days because we are almost sure that this list will go down,” said Bolliger.

Bolliger added that the process of building DNA profiles in Switzerland and Thailand, and storing the information in a data bank was likely to take “weeks, even months”.

Interpol role

Police chiefs meeting at Interpol headquarters in Lyon, France, agreed on the need to better coordinate the work of identifying bodies.

Bolliger said there had also been agreement that Interpol should play a bigger role in the process of gathering data from around the world.

A decision was taken to create a group to help with the identification of bodies. Based in Lyon, the group will be charged with working out a policy of cooperation among the different police forces.

A team of 24 forensic specialists from Switzerland has been in Thailand since the end of last week.

They are among 300 forensic experts from 20 countries faced with the task of collecting samples from the thousands of decomposing bodies.

The teams of pathologists, forensic dentists and police officers only began their work in earnest on Tuesday after agreeing with the Thai authorities on a coordinated approach, working to Interpol standards.

Difficult task

Many of the corpses cannot be identified visually, so dental records and DNA samples will have to be used. This means taking X-rays of teeth and collecting bone-tissue.

According to Professor Timothy Harding, director of the Institute for Legal Medicine in Geneva, the advanced state of putrefaction is certain to complicate the already difficult task of identifying the dead.

“The first problem at this stage must be how to distinguish between the bodies of foreign tourists and those of local people, because the external differences, the level of skin colour, will have disappeared by now,” he told swissinfo.

“So unless there are other indications, the kind of clothes they are wearing, I can imagine there will be a problem as to which cadavers should be examined forensically.”

Harding, who was involved in identifying the 229 victims of the 1998 Swissair crash off the coast of Nova Scotia, says the sheer scale of the tragedy means it will be impossible to identify everyone.

Some may have already been buried or cremated; others may simply never be found.

“What everybody would like to be done would be to identify all the victims and to allow all family members to have some closure and some certainty about who is in fact dead,” he said.

“But in a catastrophe of this scale you can’t achieve all the aims you want.”

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont

In brief

An initial list of 105 presumed dead has been sent out to cantonal police forces.

They will now begin the process of collecting DNA samples. It is hoped that these can eventually be matched with samples collected by forensic teams in Thailand.

Police say the whole process is likely to take weeks or even months.

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