August 15, 2009 / 4:33 AM / 8 years ago

Taiwan seeks foreign aid after typhoon catastrophe

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<p>People attend a memorial service where portraits of flood victims of Typhoon Morakot, are arranged in front of offerings, in Jiahsien, Kaohsiung County, southern Taiwan August 15, 2009.Stringer</p>

TAIPEI (Reuters) - Taiwan leaders, already under fire over the response to a typhoon that likely killed hundreds, have accepted foreign aid after earlier refusing the offers, officials said on Saturday, as the president apologized.

Trying to repair its image after Typhoon Morakot caused widespread landslides in southern Taiwan, the government on Friday asked major world donors for equipment, a foreign ministry official said. Aid offers were initially refused on Tuesday.

"In our first message, we said we didn't need help, just money," said Joanne Ou, head of the ministry's publicity section. "But on (Thursday) the ministry asked the disaster center what we needed. We asked them for a list."

Local media, reflecting public sentiment, bashed the government for declining aid earlier in the week.

The ministry has approached Japan, the United States and European countries for supplies such as large helicopters and mobile homes, Ou said.

Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, pressured by the public over his response to the typhoon damage, on Friday estimated the eventual death toll at more than 500, mostly people feared buried in a massive landslide in one mountain village.

Could Drain Support

Survivors and Taiwan's main opposition party have accused Ma of responding too slowly to the typhoon that hit last weekend, the island's worst since 1959. The official death toll is 123.

Ma, touring a disaster area in central Taiwan, apologized on Saturday.

<p>Family members of flood victims mourn for them at the site of a major landslide that destroyed the mountain village of Hsiao Lin in Kaohsiung County, southern Taiwan August 15, 2009.Stringer</p>

"Ma said the government response was a bit slow and expressed apologies for that," his spokesman Tony Wang said.

Sustained pressure on Ma, who was elected in 2008, could drain support for his Nationalist Party (KMT) in city and county elections in December, analysts say.

The foreign aid snafu pointed to poor communication between government offices and may be remembered, said Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taipei.

Slideshow (5 Images)

"The problem throughout is that people in government are sticking with day-to-day, non-crisis management instead of common sense," Huang said.

Six countries, including China and the United States, have pledged aid, including expert damage assessment and water filtration tools.

More than 35,000 people from disaster areas in southern Taiwan have been rescued, the National Fire Agency said.

But in the worst-hit village, Hsiao Lin, it was unlikely that anyone trapped on Monday in a massive landslide had survived, local officials said.

Rescue crews have been told to focus on survivors and sending in food rather than digging for bodies, said Hu Jui-chou, an army major general involved in the rescue effort.

"I was there yesterday, and it looked like a valley full of rocks and mud," he said.

Morakot, which passed over Taiwan last weekend, has caused about T$11.8 billion ($360 million) in agricultural losses and damaged more than 250 road segments, requiring years to repair.

Editing by Bill Tarrant

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