- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 4, 2005

The State Department has not been able to obtain Sri Lankan immigration records of Americans who might have been in the country during last week’s tsunami disaster, which has complicated efforts to find and help victims, U.S. officials said yesterday.

The officials pointed out that the Sri Lankan authorities have been very cooperative in tracking down U.S. citizens and have promised access to any information needed by Washington.

But there was confusion yesterday about why the immigration records have not yet been made available.

First, some U.S. officials said that the government in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, would provide only arrival records, suggesting that the country’s immigration authorities do not keep departure information about foreign visitors.

Other U.S. officials, however, said later that departure records did not exist only for those foreigners who left immediately after the Dec. 26 Indian Ocean tsunami, because the Sri Lankan authorities tried to get as many people out of the country as possible and as quickly as they could.

“They probably did a good thing,” one official said, noting that the arrival information is very helpful by itself, even without the departure records. “It’s better to have half than nothing.”

But a Sri Lankan immigration official at the Colombo airport said in a telephone interview late yesterday that his office has in its possession both the arrival and departure records of everyone who entered and exited the country, including during the frantic period in the tsunami’s aftermath.

“We didn’t make exceptions,” the official said. “We have all the records — arrival and departure.”

He also noted that both paper and computer records were kept.

He added that he could not explain the confusion and would not speculate about why misleading information might have been given to the United States.

The Sri Lankan Embassy in Washington said it could not account for the discrepancy, either.

Thailand and Sri Lanka are the countries where most American victims of the tsunami were at the time. The official American death toll yesterday stood at 16, split evenly between the two countries.

Thailand opened its immigration records to U.S. authorities last week.

“We are working with authorities in Sri Lanka, in Indonesia for the same kind of information that will help us to provide a more precise accounting,” State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said yesterday.

But officials said later that Washington has not asked either Indonesia or India for immigration records, because there are no indications that any Americans there were affected by the tsunami — if there were any present in those areas at all.

“Another thing we are doing is working with airlines in Thailand, for example, to get information of Americans who came and left the country, and that way we can also eliminate a lot of names on the list. So this is a very broad-based effort,” Mr. Ereli said.

That list contained about 4,000 “unresolved inquiries” yesterday about people who might have been in the areas hit by the tsunami. It was compiled from calls made to the State Department’s designated phone line by relatives or friends.

Initially, there were about 20,000 inquiries, but most of them have been resolved, the department said.

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