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Monday, July 20, 1998 Published at 13:36 GMT 14:36 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Tidal wave kills 'thousands'

A tidal wave victim is stretchered onto a rescue plane

Damian Grammaticas reports for BBC World TV
Around 3,000 people are now thought to have been killed in the tsunami - or tidal wave - that devastated northern Papua New Guinea.

Hour by hour more bodies are being discovered under the sand or in the lagoons as rescue teams struggle to get relief aid and medical supplies to the area.

Sean Dorney reports from the disaster area
"I'm looking at a very conservative figure of 3,000 people dead, based on the number of bodies recovered so far and the number of people seen still hiding in the jungle" said West Sepik provincial governor John Tekwie.

"I've had a look and all there is is bodies. The stench of the dead is overpowering," he said.

[ image: Australia flying in relief supplies]
Australia flying in relief supplies
The Australian air force has flown in the first large shipment of medical supplies and survival equipment for victims.

Three C-130 Hercules transport planes landed on a tiny church mission airfield inland from the devastated coastline. More food and survival gear is arriving from New Zealand. More help has been offered by France, Japan and South Korea.

But the relief effort is struggling against poor communications and the immense distances involved in reaching the remote area of northern Papua New Guinea.

Rescue teams also face the threats of tropical infection and disease from the many bodies lying unburied on the beaches.

Colonel Jobson: "Setting up a field hospital"
Colonel Keith Jobson, of the Australian Defence Force, said: "Our priority is to save lives and minimise suffering.

"It's a challenging task exacerbated by the great distances and the remoteness."

Practically nothing remains of the coastal villages where 12,000 people lived until the tsunami - commonly known as a tidal wave - smashed them into the jungle or sucked them out to sea.

[ image:  ]
The region is a jungle swamp area that includes tribes which rely on subsistence farming and fishing. Most live in homes made of jungle materials and built on beaches.

The prime minister of Papua New Guinea, Bill Skate, visited the area and said he was shocked by what he saw.

"I visited a hospital and saw a young girl, about eight years old, who had lost all her family. It is something I will probably remember for the rest of my life," he said.

Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Bill Skate: "Very ugly sight"
More than 600 bodies have been counted officially. At least 6,000 people are estimated to have been left homeless.

'Appalling' conditions

Local officials say conditions are appalling. Doctors say medication, blood banks and more surgeons are desperately needed for survivors, mostly suffering fractures and internal bleeding.

Many of the injured told horrific stories of how they survived the black wall of water that engulfed them on Friday.

[ image: A schoolbook lies in the debris]
A schoolbook lies in the debris
The Australian air force has set up a field hospital in the nearby town of Vanimo, where hundreds of survivors have been ferried by helicopters.

Vanimo is about 60 miles (96 kilometres) west of the area wiped out by the tsunami. It is the main administrative centre and is close to the border of the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya.

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