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Hope diminishes as corpses surface

KHAO LAK, Thailand -- Miles of tsunami-shattered beach hotels on the Thai mainland north of Phuket island began yielding up their dead yesterday, bloated gashed, and mangled bodies.

At least 770 corpses, Thais and foreign tourists, were recovered in the area around Khao Lak beach, a magnet for Scandinavians and Germans escaping the long, dark winters at home.

That made it the worst-hit place in Thailand and there were fears the final toll would be much higher in an area that drew tourists for scuba diving and snorkeling among the coral reefs of the Andaman Sea as well as for its golden sands and sunshine.

Hotel owner Yanyong Korpetch said he believed half the estimated 5,000 foreign tourists staying at Khao Lak had been killed when the wall of water struck on Sunday. The bodies of more than 100 of his 300 guests had been recovered, he said.

Chantima Saengli, owner of the Blue Village Pagarang hotel, told a Bangkok radio station she knew about 60 of her Scandinavian guests were safe.

She feared the other 340 were dead, their bodies swept into the rainforest covering the hills behind the beach.

Jean-Marc Espalioux, chairman of the French Accor group, said yesterday that hope was fading for hundreds of guests still missing at its Sofitel hotel on Khao Lak.

''There is still hope for some of those who disappeared, unfortunately a minority, a few dozens. As for the rest, there is not much hope, except for individual miracles."

He said hotel guests included French nationals, Germans, Russians, and Hong Kong residents.

Thailand's official death toll passed 1,500 with 1,400 missing, many of them Thais working in the tourist trade. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra ordered three days of national mourning.

''We believe it will be in the thousands," Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai told Reuters Television on Phuket when asked what the final toll might be. Search and rescue teams from Germany and Taiwan arrived on the island to help.

Deputy Interior Minister Sutham Saengprathum said workers would start using heavy equipment today.

Confirmation of the scale of the disaster at Khao Lak would push the national total well beyond 2,000. One senior official said the toll in Phang Nga province, where Khao Lak is, could top 1,500.

''Rescuers are holding their breath while using their bare hands, axes, or shovels to dig through piles of wrecked buildings and debris at Khao Lak," the senior provincial official, Chailert Piyorattanachote, said.

''We don't have enough coffins and those that we have are too small for the bloated bodies of foreigners," he said.

At the Sofitel, Colonel Becha Kingwongsa said his men had extracted 30 bodies, from the hotel's cottage-style units.

Most were in the hotel dining room when the tsunami struck. ''They didn't know what hit them," he said.

His men had many more cottages to search and they expected to find another 100 bodies.

Koh Phi Phi, the island southeast of Phuket made famous by ''The Beach" movie with Leonardo DiCaprio, was also devastated.

More than 90 bodies had been recovered, 60 of them foreigners, said Anek Jewwuthipong, the chief civil engineer of Krabi province. ''We estimate there are more than 200 bodies that have not been retrieved," he said.

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