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Sunday, July 19, 1998 Published at 03:16 GMT 04:16 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Tidal wave 'may have killed 1,000'

Rescue teams are beginning the task of helping survivors of the tidal wave that struck Papua New Guinea on Friday, as fears grow that the death toll may eventually exceed 1,000.

Rescue coordinator Colonel Keith Jobson: "Entire villages have been swept away."
At least 70 bodies have been recovered so far, and rescuers say hundreds more remain floating in a lagoon near the scene of the disaster.

They say many more people have been injured - mostly with fractures from falling trees and buildings.

Low-lying villages were completely washed away when the tidal wave swept over them. Only bare sand was left behind.

Hundreds of people are still missing and thousands more are homeless. Work is underway to bury the bodies recovered so far.

The Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, Bill Skate, will inspect the devastation on Sunday.

The 30ft high tsunami wave struck a 30km stretch of the northwest coast around the town of Aitape in Sepik province. It came around 30 minutes after the area was struck by an undersea earthquake measuring seven on the Richter Scale.

Aid operation underway

The Australian Air Force and aid agencies are having to fly supplies into the remote region as many roads and bridges have been destroyed. Their efforts have also been hampered by damage to the only local airstrip.

Murray Greene: "The devastation is colossal."
Colonel Keith Jobson, who is co-ordinating the Australian air force operation, said: "Our latest estimate from the site is up to 1,000 people or more have been killed."

Murray Greene, the manager of a Catholic mission in Aitape, says the disaster appears to be much worse than originally thought. He also said the death toll would top 1,000.

Mr Greene added that although there had been a series of minor tremors after the main quake, there had been no further tidal waves.

Medical help

He hoped that this would encourage survivors who fled to the bush seeking higher ground to return to the beachfront, where five field medical stations have been set up to treat the injured.

The Australian air force has despatched a mobile hospital and medical staff to the area. Local hospitals are already full, Mr Greene said.

Rob Parer, a local businessman, says the most common injuries are broken bones suffered when the wave shattered houses.

"The biggest damage - for the ones that survive - is from the damage done by the timber in the houses. There was timber flying everywhere," he said.

Before the tsunami, the area had a population of about 10,000 people - mainly subsistence farmers.

Kevin McCue, a seismologist from the Australian Geological Survey Organisation said the last tidal wave in the area was in 1930 when a quake measuring 6.5 on the Richter Scale struck the Admiralty Islands.

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19 Jul 98 | Asia-Pacific
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