The government for the first time Wednesday deployed 10,000 Self-Defense Forces personnel to add to police officers and firefighters expanding relief efforts as freezing temperatures in the north compounded the already impossible situation for those whose homes and loved ones were swept away in the unprecedented natural disaster, Kyodo News reported.
The National Police Agency said there were 4,314 confirmed deaths in 12 prefectures, and 8,606 people remained missing in six prefectures. The death toll is certain to rise as more bodies are recovered from coastal areas flattened by the sea.
''We could rescue more than 26,000 people, but the number of those who died or are unaccounted for has exceeded 10,000," Prime Minister Naoto Kan said at an emergency task force meeting Wednesday.
Fourteen U.S. Navy ships and their aircraft have joined the relief efforts, with 17,000 sailors and Marines aiding in the movement of food, water and other supplies to those who need it most, Defense Department spokesman Dave Lapan said in Washington.
The USS Blue Ridge, the command ship of the U.S. 7th Fleet, is scheduled to arrive Thursday, Lapan said. Most of the vessels will remain on Japan's west coast to avoid the radiation emanating from the failed reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Nearly 500,000 people occupied more than 2,200 shelters five days after the 9-magnitude earthquake hit, Kyodo said.