The death toll from the earthquake and tsunami which devastated Indonesia’s Sulawesi island has topped 1,700, as officials fear another 5,000 people could be missing.
The national disaster agency said the number of dead had climbed to 1,763, mostly in Palu.
Agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said many more people could be buried, especially in the Palu neighbourhoods of Petobo and Balaroa, where more than 3,000 homes were damaged or sucked into deep mud when the September 28 quake caused loose soil to liquefy.
He said: “Based on reports from village chiefs in Balaroa and Petobo, some 5,000 people have not been found. Our workers on the ground are trying to confirm this.”
Mr Nugroho said efforts to retrieve decomposed bodies in deep, soft mud were getting more difficult and that some people may have fled or been rescued and evacuated.
More than 8,000 either injured or vulnerable residents have been flown or shipped out of Palu, while others could have left by land, he said.
Officially, Mr Nugroho said only 265 people are confirmed missing and 152 others still buried under mud and rubble, nine days after the magnitude 7.5 earthquake and powerful tsunami hit Palu and its surrounding areas.
The government targets to end search operations by Thursday, nearly two weeks after the disaster, at which time those unaccounted for will be declared missing and considered dead, Mr Nugroho said.