Indonesian President Joko Widodo ordered more rescuers to be sent in to find victims of a devastating earthquake and tsunami on Tuesday as the official death toll rose above 1,200 and looting raised fears of growing lawlessness.
Most of the dead have been from the small city of Palu, 1,500 km (930 miles) northeast of Jakarta, but some remote areas have been cut off since Friday’s 7.5 magnitude quake triggered tsunami waves, leading to fears the toll could soar.
"There are some main priorities that we must tackle and the first is to evacuate, find and save victims who’ve not yet been found," Widodo told a government meeting to coordinate disaster recovery efforts on the west coast of Sulawesi island.
He said he had ordered the national search and rescue agency to send more police and soldiers into the affected districts, some cut off by destroyed roads, landslides and downed bridges.
The Ministry of Defence confirmed to The Telegraph on Tuesday that six military personnel have been sent to the region to establish a command and control centre. A Royal Navy frigate is also being sent to the area and an A400M Atlas transport aircraft is being readied in the UK to deliver aid by parachute if needed. "Things will start moving soon," an MoD spokesman said.
The official death toll surged to 1,234, Indonesia’s national disaster agency said.
The Red Cross said the situation was "nightmarish" and reports from its workers venturing into one cut-off area, Donggala, a region of 300,000 people north of Palu and close to the epicentre, indicated it had been hit "extremely hard".
Four badly hit districts have a combined population of about 1.4 million.
In Palu, tsunami waves as high as six metres (20 feet) smashed into the beachfront, while hotels and shopping malls collapsed in ruins and some neighbourhoods were swallowed up by ground liquefaction.
Among those killed were 34 children at a Christian bible study camp, a Red Cross official said.
The government has ordered aid supplies to be airlifted in but there’s little sign of help on Palu’s shattered streets and survivors appeared increasingly desperate.
'Liquefaction' adds to devastation in Indonesia earthquake
A Reuters news team saw a shop cleared by about 100 people, shouting, scrambling and fighting each other for items including clothes, toiletries, blankets and water.
Many people grabbed diapers while one man clutched a rice cooker as he headed for the door. Non-essential goods were scattered on the floor amid shards of broken glass.
At least 20 police were at the scene but did not intervene. The government has played down fears of looting saying disaster victims could take essential goods and shops would be compensated later.
Indonesia is all too familiar with earthquakes and tsunamis. A quake in 2004 triggered a tsunami across the Indian Ocean that killed 226,000 people in 13 countries, including more than 120,000 in Indonesia.
It has said it would accept offers of international aid, having shunned outside help earlier this year when an earthquake struck the island of Lombok.
Indonesia tsunami in pictures: Big waves leave Sulawesi coastline in ruins
More than 65,000 homes were damaged and more than 60,000 people have been displaced and are in need of emergency help, while thousands have been streaming out of stricken areas.
Commercial airlines have struggled to restore operations at Palu’s damaged airport but military aircraft have taken some survivors out.
But thousands of people have been thronging the airport hoping for any flight out, and authorities have said a navy vessel capable of taking 1,000 people at a time would be deployed to help with the evacuation.
Sulawesi is one of the archipelago nation’s five main islands.