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BANDA ACEH, Indonesia » Searchers all but gave up hope of finding more survivors from last week's killer earthquake and tsunami, with authorities saying today that thousands listed as missing were presumed dead. The world turned its full attention to getting food and water to the living.
Deaths from the disaster were nearing 150,000 after hardest-hit Indonesia added another 14,000 people to the official count. Sri Lanka and India said they were almost ready to give up on more than 11,000 still unaccounted for.
More than a week after the disaster struck the region without any advance notice, Indonesia also announced plans to work with the country's neighbors to establish an early-warning system similar to that in the Pacific Ocean.
Aid workers, meanwhile, were trying to help the millions of people displaced and devastated by the loss of family and friends put their towns and villages back together. The arrival of U.S. warships and helicopters carrying water, biscuits and other necessities highlighted the scope of that task.
In the low-lying Maldives islands south of India, the desolate scene reminded U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Max Andrews of war-torn cities in Iraq.
"I was in Fallujah last summer and saw the devastation and damage there, but that was surgical and aimed at specific targets," Andrews, who is part of a U.S. four-member military-civilian team sent to assess aid needs, said yesterday. "Here it's total. Everything is gone."
A U.S. warship strike group carrying more than 2,200 Marines arrived in the Malacca Straits off Singapore today to begin ferrying supplies to tsunami-battered Sumatra before leading the U.S. military relief effort in Sri Lanka.
The USS Bonhomme Richard and two other warships carrying a Marine expeditionary unit, dozens of helicopters and tons of supplies steamed into the Indian Ocean to join in relief operations off the hard-hit northwest coast of Sumatra.
Later this week, the group was to begin operations off the shores of Sri Lanka.
The strike group, which had been on its way to the Arabian Gulf, was diverted while near Guam to join in the U.S. military's humanitarian response to the devastation caused throughout the region by the Dec. 26 catastrophic earthquake and tsunamis.
International donors, meeting this week in Indonesia, have so far pledged about $2 billion. But the needs of disaster victims remain enormous, and relief efforts have been hampered by the destruction of roads, ports and airfields.
In coastal villages such as Kuede Teunom in Indonesia, survivors in mud-caked and tattered clothing grabbed at bottles of water dropped from the air.
As the relief effort continued to build, affected nations were also working to ensure that nothing on the scale of last week's disaster would happen again.
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said today his nation would join in an international effort to set up an early-warning system to limit the loss of life in any similar catastrophe in the future.
"This would be a kind of pre-emptive measure," he told reporters.
Yudhoyono did not specify how many countries would be involved, but regional leaders were expected to endorse establishing such a system during a donors conference Thursday in Jakarta, organized through the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
In New York, U.N. humanitarian chief Jan Egeland said 1.8 million people in tsunami-hit countries would need food aid, and that figure could rise.
In Indonesia the official count of the dead stood at more than 94,000. In Sri Lanka, where the destruction was second only to Indonesia, officials added 1,026 more to the death toll and conceded 5,540 people still missing would also likely be declared dead, bringing the figure there to 35,000.
In India, authorities expected the toll along that nation's southeastern coast to reach 15,000. Another 5,000 were dead along Thailand's resort coast, with thousands more missing, and 500 were dead in seven other nations in Asia and Africa.
Children accounted for a staggering 40 percent, or 12,000, of the deaths in Sri Lanka, officials said. But without bodies to mourn over, many parents find it hard to believe their children are dead. Some were buried in mass graves, before parents were told. Many were swept out to sea.
Day after day, parents come at dawn and wander the beach in the devastated districts of Ampara and Batticaloa.
"They believe their kids are alive and the sea will return them -- one day," UNICEF chief Carol Bellamy said yesterday after touring this island country's tsunami-devastated shore.