(Reuters) Hambantota, Sri Lanka, December 29:
This story is datelined Hambantota, Wednesday, but in reality most of the town doesn't exist anymore.
Situated on a narrow strip of land on Sri Lanka's south coast, it fronted the Indian Ocean, while to the rear lay a big lagoon -- partly mangrove and partly reclaimed for salt farming.
Hambantota was the southern gateway to Sri Lanka's famed Yala National Park, its beachfront dotted with bungalows catering for tourists who wanted a seaside holiday combined with a wildlife adventure.
Once a week, on Sundays, farmers from miles around would gather at the central market to sell their wares.
So the town was at its very busiest when the deadly tsunami triggered by an earthquake beneath the Indian Ocean swept away everything in its path on Sunday morning.
Virtually nothing of the town remains.
The telecoms tower, slightly crooked at its base has, astonishingly, already been repaired. A small green mosque miraculously seemed to have escaped much damage, although the force and height of the water was such that the blades of its ceiling fans now hang down like a gnarled claw.
About five or six other buildings along the beach are still recognisable as having once been a shop or home, but the rest have been smashed into billions of pieces of broken bricks, twisted metal, shattered glass and splintered wood.
Asked how many people died in Hambantota, an army officer supervising the salvage operation shook his head, saying "many, many".
Asked how many foreigners, he repeated the action, "many".
On Wednesday, Sri Lankan army soldiers were still pulling hundreds of bloated bodies out of the mangrove behind the town. Each new tide brings hundreds more.
"The people were washed away and trapped in the roots," said an officer. "Only after time do they all come up."
Each new tide loosens hundreds more corpses to add to the over 2,500 that have already been buried just outside what remains of the town.
The rubble of the town is packed with upcountry relatives of those who died picking through the remains of the shattered homes and buildings. Few of the inhabitants survived.
"We will never know how many perished," said one police officer." I think everyone".
The mangrove was also responsible for scores of deaths at the nearby Yala National Park.
Body bags lined the road leading to the Yala Safari Lodge and Brown's beach resort on Wednesday. Little of either complex remains.
The bodies of two Japanese were found on Wednesday, adding to the mounting toll of foreigners killed at the complex.
Cars and tourist buses had been blown hundreds of metres inland by the surge of water, their twisted remains now part of the mangrove landscape.
Entry to the park was restricted by officials, but workers helping search for survivors further in said much of the wildlife had also been killed.
The park is famous for its big cats and also has some of the few remaining wild elephant herds in Asia.