Japan: Huge troop search for quake and tsunami bodies

Japanese soldiers search for the bodies of people missing since the 11 March earthquake in Shichigahamamachi, Miyagi Prefecture, northeastern Japan, on Monday
Image caption The retreating tsunami water took many bodies out to sea and left many buried under mud and rubble

Japan has deployed nearly 25,000 troops to search for the bodies of those missing since the earthquake and tsunami that devastated north-eastern areas more than six weeks ago.

The search is the third such large-scale effort since the disaster.

Twelve thousand people are unaccounted for and it is feared many were swept out to sea and will never be recovered.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Naoto Kan is under pressure after his party suffered defeats in local elections.

Members of Mr Kan's Democratic Party of Japan (DJP) won only three out of 10 elections held over the weekend. The polls were mostly for local government posts.

The DJP losses come two weeks after the party was battered in contests for governorships and elections to prefectural assemblies.

But Mr Kan brushed off criticism of his handling of the natural and nuclear crises triggered by the 11 March quake, saying his determination to tackle them remained steadfast.

Piece by piece

In the town of Shichigahamamachi, a line of Japanese soldiers drove thin poles into marshy land as they combed the area for human remains, the Associated Press reported.

Nearby, other soldiers unpicked piles of rubble piece by piece.

The latest two-day search deployment is the third intensive military operation aiming to uncover the bodies of quake victims.

Police, coast guard and US soldiers are also participating in the search, which Japanese broadcaster NHK reports is covering inland and coastal areas in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, as well as waters offshore.

A total of 438 bodies were found in the previous two searches, bringing the official death toll to 14,340.

But 11,889 people are still missing, and it is feared that many of their bodies may have been swept away by the sea.

Meanwhile, local officials entered the 20km (12 mile) evacuation zone around the crisis-hit Fukushima nuclear plant to assess whether a cull should take place of hundreds of thousands of abandoned farm animals in the zone.

Produce from many of the region's farms has been banned, and the crisis has also hit the production of leading carmakers including Toyota.

Prime Minister Kan has vowed to see through recovery and reconstruction following the quake.

But finding funds when public debt is already twice the $5tn (£3.03tn) economy is a daunting challenge exacerbated by the level of political opposition he faces, say analysts.