Ministers Admit Handling of Tsunami Crisis Caused Suffering

Sweden’s prime minister and foreign minister admitted in public hearings Thursday that the government’s slow handling of the 2004 tsunami crisis caused additional suffering.

Prime Minister Göran Persson testified that ”I am the first to regret that we didn’t realize the extent (of the crisis), and I have apologized for that.” He added that had the government been better prepared ”it would have reduced the pain and suffering for many people.”

Foreign Minister Laila Freivalds, who could face a vote of no-confidence following the hearings, also said she regretted that the foreign ministry’s crisis team had not been prepared to handle a catastrophe of the size of the Indian Ocean tsunami, which left 543 Swedes dead.

As many as 20,000 Swedes were vacationing in Southeast Asia at the time of the Indian Ocean tsunami, most of them in Thailand.

In the first days after the disaster the government failed to realize the scope of the tragedy and did not offer injured Swedes medical care, transport home or other assistance.

The report said Prime Minister Göran Persson had the ultimate responsibility for his administration’s shortcomings, but Freivalds received the harshest criticism.

She has been slammed for going to the theatre on the evening of December 26 as reports emerged of thousands of missing Swedes in the areas hit by the tsunami, and for saying that she was unaware that Thailand was a popular travel destination for Swedes.

In Thursday’s hearings she insisted that she was ”not able to list which (tourist destination) was the biggest, but I knew that (Thailand) was a big one.”

The hearings, aimed at getting to the bottom of why the government failed to react quickly and decisively to the crisis, began with testimonies from lower-level government officials in late January and moved on to the government minister level this week.

Health Minister Ylva Johansson, International Development Aid Minister Carin Jämtin and Defense Minister Leni Björklund appeared on Monday and Tuesday.