Forensic teams head to Thai tsunami isle again

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PHUKET, Thailand, Sep 17 (Reuters) Three years after Phuket saw the largest forensic operation in history, Thai and foreign experts were working together again to identify the charred bodies from yesterday's plane crash.

Seven experts from Israel, which sent a team to the resort island in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, were due to arrive on Phuket tomorrow.

Australia, which also took part in the tsunami effort, offered today to help identify victims from the budget airliner that crashed while trying to land in driving rain and gusting wind, killing 89 people, 55 of them foreigners.

''We welcome any offer from foreign friends,'' Foreign Ministry spokesman Piriya Khempon told Reuters.

So far, the dead are known to include four Swedes, three Americans, two Iranians, a French national, an Indonesian, at least one Australian and a Briton.

An Israeli rabbi, telling Reuters at a temporary morgue at Phuket airport where the identities of 32 Thais and 21 foreigners have been confirmed so far, said eight Israelis were missing and two others were treated in hospital.

Nehemya Wilhelm, who flew from Israel with relatives of missing passengers and three search and rescue workers, said two of the eight were believed to be dead, judging from pictures taken by Thai police and posted on a notice board at the morgue.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said identifying all the bodies ''could take some time'', but Thai officials said their job could be finished soon.

''EASIER THAN TSUNAMI WORK'' ''This is much easier than our work during the tsunami,'' Police Lieutenant General Tani Twidsi said.

''Most of the bodies are still in good condition. Many of the tourists had travel documents with them. It's not difficult to identify them,'' he said.

Autopsies on the 89 bodies were completed earlier today and investigators were collecting fingerprints, blood samples and X-raying teeth.

''I would like to urge the families of the dead to bring as much evidence as possible to help identify the victims, especially dental records. We don't need DNA yet because the bodies are still in good condition,'' Tani said.

The challenge was far greater three years ago when police investigators from Thailand and at least 20 different countries had to deal with rotting bodies exposed to days in salt water and tropical heat.

Reliable fingerprints were hard to obtain from bodies lying in water. Bacteria thrived in the heat and humidity, breaking down DNA and making laboratory analysis more difficult.

Tani said a key lesson learned from the tsunami was adequate cold storage to prevent further decomposition.

In the wake of yesterday's crash, three refrigerated containers were sent to Phuket airport and others will be moved there over the next few days.

Unclaimed bodies will be buried at a cemetery in the neighbouring southern province of Phang Nga, where more than 400 unidentified bodies of tsunami victims were buried last year.

REUTERS AM BD2225

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