TAIPEI - Taiwan's leader said Tuesday the military will make evacuations and rescue operations one of its main roles as extreme weather events such as Typhoon Morakot and climate change now pose a bigger threat.
Ten days after the typhoon hit the island, President Ma Ying-jeou told a news conference that rescue operations had ended and the typhoon response had entered a new phase focused on disaster relief and resettlement.
Ma and senior officials began the news conference by bowing low in what he said was a symbolic apology to the Taiwanese people for not doing more in the immediate aftermath of the typhoon slamming into the island's south and centre on August 8.
Ma has warned the death toll could climb to more than 500, with hundreds feared buried, while 128 people are so far confirmed dead.
The results of an investigation into where the government's response went wrong will be released next month, he said.
The president said he had already decided to create a national disaster prevention agency to take over crisis management, replacing the National Fire Agency, and that the military would do intensive disaster response training.
"In the future the armed forces of this country will have disaster prevention and rescue as their main job," Ma said.
Ma was asked if he was signalling a change to military doctrine, which is focused on protecting against an attack by mainland China. The two are still officially at war despite warming relations since Ma was elected last year.
"Their main job, of course, is to defend Taiwan. But now our enemy is not necessarily the people across the Taiwan Strait, but nature. We have to do things that will prevent further casualties," he said, without elaborating.
Ma said he would not resign in response to questions over calls for him to step down over his administration's handling of the typhoon.
"I will not run from my responsibilities," he said, adding he owed it to typhoon victims to steer the island through the crisis.
"I know there are areas to improve and, as the president, I have to shoulder the responsibility for relocation and resettlement," he said.
He also said that National Day celebrations on October 10 would be cancelled as festivities were no longer appropriate at a time of tragedy.
The crisis claimed its first political victim as Ma confirmed that deputy foreign minister Andrew Hsia had tendered his resignation over the ministry's decision to reject foreign aid immediately after the typhoon hit.
Meanwhile, disaster relief continued with television footage showing US military heavy-lift helicopters airlifting excavation equipment destined for disaster-struck areas to help speed up road and bridge repairs.
China was shipping 100 prefabricated houses to help with reconstruction efforts, the first in a batch of 1,000 homes worth 2.9 million US dollars being sent to Taiwan's Kaohsiung port, China's official Xinhua news agency said.
"Those who can be saved have been saved," Hsi Go-war, commander of Army Aviation and Special Forces in the worst-hit southern areas -- Kaohsiung and Pingtung counties, and part of Alishan -- told AFP.
He said his 550-member military force had airlifted a total of 5,657 survivors to safety since rescue operations began.
The commander said his troops were flying relief items to Meishan, where 150 villagers have refused to leave. They were also helping rebuild damaged infrastructure and communication networks.
"Digging up the bodies will be our focus now. I have been to the Hsiaolin township, where they said some 400 bodies were buried in the mud. But it's almost impossible to recover the bodies because the mud was as high as 30 metres," he said.
"Still, we have to try our best to dig them out. That's the order we received."