Wednesday, December 29, 2004

TEL AVIV — As Israelis struggled to discover the fate of hundreds of friends and family members traveling through Southeast Asia, a government offer to send a team of doctors for an Israeli field hospital was declined by Sri Lankan authorities.

A 150-member Israeli military delegation had been just hours from taking off in an air force plane when the mission was scrapped unexpectedly. Israel ultimately sent a plane with 80 tons of medical supplies, food and emergency equipment to the disaster-stricken country.

An Israeli Foreign Ministry official denied Israeli press reports that Sri Lanka had bristled at accepting aid from the Israeli military.

“The reason that was given was that they were overflowing with [emergency] crews, and what they really need was the supplies and equipment,” David Saranga, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, told Channel 1 television news.

Several hundred Israelis were thought to have been spending the holiday season on tropical Asian beaches where the tsunami touched ground on Sunday morning and killed about 77,000 people.

In the first two days after the disaster, hundreds were unaccounted for, but the Israeli Foreign Ministry said late yesterday that 35 Israelis were missing.

In a country where tens of thousands visit Southeast Asia every year, news of the Israelis’ fate dominated the headlines, pushing aside reports on Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Trips to Asian countries such as India, Sri Lanka and Thailand have become rites of passage for several Israeli twentysomethings who have finished their compulsory military service and plan trips lasting several months in inexpensive destinations.

Yesterday, a group of civilian rescue personnel arrived in Thailand to search for the missing Israelis amid fear that the bodies of tsunami victims might be buried in mass graves. Relatives and friends also flew to disaster areas to find the missing people on their own.

Idan Geva said he had spent yesterday searching Thai hospitals without success for Uzi Saguy and Aya Shapira, who had been in the Khao Lak resort area, one of the hardest-hit locations.

“Tomorrow we’re going out in the field to walk the entire strip of coastline,” he told Channel 1. “We’re shooting in the dark, but that’s the best we can do.”

On Sunday, the Israeli Foreign Ministry set up a situation room to collect inquiries from worried relatives and information of travelers’ whereabouts. But as the dimensions of the disaster became apparent, the ministry began drowning in a frenzy of calls and was forced to add staff and phone lines.

“There are a lot of Israelis in the area and they are dispersed,” said Amira Oron, a ministry spokeswoman. “The telephone infrastructure in those areas isn’t very good, so it’s very difficult to get information.”

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