Thousands of Europeans and other holidaymakers in South Asia were feared hit by Sunday's huge tidal waves. But reports suggest most have escaped with their lives from the disaster which killed tens of thousands.
Large parts of coastal India and Sri Lanka in particular were submerged
With the casualty rate in the worst-hit regions of southern India and Sri Lanka rising by the hour, European governments and agencies set up crisis centres and hotlines. They also offered help to the countries swept by the giant tsunamis sparked by a huge earthquake off Indonesia, as they prepared to send planes to bring their citizens home.
Briton Alison Winward, an editor for the weekly English-language paper Phuket Gazette, said that 66 people, including 20 foreign nationals, were reported dead on the Thai resort island of Phuket, a further 22 were missing and 691 injured, according to Kawee Sukunthamath chief of the Phuket Office of Disaster Prevention and Management.
A street in Phuket is littered with damaged vehicles and debris
A spokeswoman for Patong Hospital, close to the western side of Phuket where the wave hit, said they had more than 50 bodies at the hospital and were treating around 400 people, many of them foreigners.
Authorities in the low-lying Maldives Islands, a popular holiday destination which was hard hit by the disaster, said a British tourist had died of a heart attack. Up to 10,000 British tourists could have been affected by the disaster, a British travel agency representative said in London.
Keith Betton of the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) said his organization was in the process of assessing whom to fly home, and canceling some holidays of people about to go.
The disaster was likely to not only cause a massive human death toll in south Asia but have far reaching economic consequences as well in a region just getting back on to its feet following the SARS disease, bird flu and terrorist attacks.
Emergency centers set up
The French, German, Dutch, Greek, Czech and Italian foreign ministries have set up crisis cells to deal with the catastrophe, which struck during the busy Christmas and New Year travel season, with European tourists flocking to south and southeast Asia.
Devastation in Madras
Germany's TUI, Europe's top travel agency, said it was in the process of gathering information on how many German tourists were in the area, but a spokesman said the communication was "extremely difficult." However German television reported that some 8,000 German tourists were currently believed to be in South Asia.
"We don't have any information on French victims, we can't confirm any French people are missing," a French foreign ministry spokesman said.
More than 5,000 Italian travelers were in the region, most of them in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, Italian travel agencies said. French tour operator Nouvelles Frontieres said around 1,000 French tourists were currently in the Maldives, and scores more in the Thai resort island of Phuket -- but there were no reports of victims to date. Club Med said three of its holiday villages in Thailand and the Maldives had been affected by the quake and floods, but no one was missing, a spokesman for the group said.
Western Thailand, where Phuket is located, is the most popular tourist area in the country, attracting five million foreign travelers each year.
An unidentified woman cries after tidal waves destroyed her house on the coastal areas in Colombo, Sri Lanka
Some 1,000 Swiss tourists, most of them in the Maldives and Thailand, were in the affected area, Swiss tour operators said. In Greece, tour operators said more than 500 Greeks were vacationing in Thailand, including nearly 300 in Phuket, and all were reported to be safe. The Greek foreign ministry said that diplomats had been sent to Phuket and southeast India to lend assistance.
Stories of holidaymakers stranded or caught in the midst of the great devastation have been pouring in.
Portuguese holidaymaker Irina Carvalho, speaking by telephone to Portugal's Lusa news agency and TSF radio station from the Thai island of Phi Phi, said a boat she was on had taken aboard two Greeks and a Swedish man, who was hurt when the wave hit the restaurant where he was dining with his wife, daughter aged four and son aged seven.
"He said that he clung on to his daughter and his wife to their son, but when he recovered his senses he was out at sea and his daughter was gone," Carvalho said. Lusa also reported an eight-month-old Portuguese baby girl had been swept from her parents' arms by a wave at Phuket.
A man salvages his household items after they were washed away by tidal waves at the Marina Beach in Madras
A French tourist, Philippe Gilbert, told France's LCI news channel that he had lost his granddaughter when an "absolutely monstrous" wave struck his bungalow at Tangalla in southern Sri Lanka. He had the luck to be caught in the tops of trees and to hold his breath long enough until the wave receded, he said.
Other testimonies to European television stations spoke of
people being left with nothing but their swimming clothes after fleeing the giant waves, and waiting for hours without food or
A huge blow to South Asia
The giant tidal waves originated in a huge undersea quake, measuring 8.9 on the Richter scale, off the Indonesian island of Sumatra, hurtling across the ocean to strike a string of countries including India, Sri Lanka and Thailand. At least 1,500 died in Sri Lanka and more than 1,500 were killed in India. Hundreds are still thought to be missing from coastal regions and, in Sri Lanka alone, officials say more than one million people have been rendered homeless.
Devastation in Colombo, Sri Lanka
Sunday's tremor - the fifth strongest since 1900 - had a particularly widespread effect because it seems to have taken place just below the surface of the ocean, analysts say.
In June, the World Tourism Organization said Asia had overcome the problems caused by the SARS health emergency and terrorism threats, and was poised for a better year in 2004.