THE death toll from the earthquake and tsunami which devastated Indonesia’s Sulawesi island has topped 1700, as officials fear another 5000 people could be missing.

The national disaster agency said the number of dead had climbed to 1763, mostly in Palu.

Agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said many more people could be buried, especially in the Palu neighbourhoods of Petobo and Balaroa, where more than 3,000 homes were damaged or sucked into deep mud when the September 28 quake caused loose soil to liquefy.

He said: “Based on reports from village chiefs in Balaroa and Petobo, some 5000 people have not been found. Our workers on the ground are trying to confirm this.”

More than 8,000 either injured or vulnerable residents have been flown or shipped out of Palu, while others could have left by land, he said.

The government targets to end search operations by Thursday, nearly two weeks after the disaster, at which time those unaccounted for will be declared missing and considered dead, Nugroho said.