PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (July 18, 1998 - The Australian News Network)---A tsunami slammed into a remote area of north-west Papua New Guinea, killing at least 70 people and obliterating entire villages, the country's National Disaster Center said yesterday.

The 7-meter-high wave hit the coast near the town of Aitape between 8:00 p.m. and 8.30 p.m. on Friday night just after the area was rattled by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation said.

The disaster center said late last night that hundreds of people were still missing and thousands were without food and shelter.

While authorities officially have put the death toll from the wave at 70, there were unconfirmed reports that dozens more may have been killed.

"We expect that about 3,000 people have been made homeless and there has been an estimate of about 300 people dead or missing," Father Austin Crapp, a relief organizer, told the ABC.

He said most of the dead were children who drowned.

The disaster control authorities said the tidal wave followed an earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale 20-30 kilometers off the coast about an hour earlier.

Australia has responded to the disaster by pledging transport for relief supplies and a mobile hospital.

In a press statement yesterday, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said an RAAF C130 Hercules aircraft, currently in PNG on training exercises, would be diverted to deliver relief supplies such as tarpaulins and food to the affected areas.

"We will also transport a mobile hospital and associated Australian Defense Force medical personnel to the disaster area to provide urgent medical assistance to injured victims," Mr. Downer said.

Mr. Downer said the Federal Government would consider further requests for assistance from the PNG Government.

Disaster authorities in Port Moresby said the wave caused the greatest damage in the four villages of Sissano, Warapu, Arop and Malol. The area, in West Sepik province, is dotted with small villages consisting of homes that are built on beaches and made of jungle-based materials.

"At Warapu, there is no house standing; it's a village of 1,800 people," Father Crapp said. "Arop, again, is 1,800 to 2,000 people; there's nothing standing there. They (the two villages) are both clean sand. It's complete devastation."

A helicopter pilot who landed in Aitape yesterday reported seeing bodies floating among the debris in the lagoon, he said.

Papua New Guinea provincial disaster coordinator Peter Tavun said survivors were in desperate need of food and shelter. A helicopter was picking up injured people and taking them to a mission hospital at Aitape, where doctors had been flown in to treat them. Most of the injured had cuts and fractures.

Rob Parer, a businessman who lives near Aitape, said some villagers who fled into the jungle after the wave struck were still hiding there.

"The people have never heard of anything like it. They thought the world had ended," Parer told ABC.

Because of the difficulty of establishing communication links with the region, the full extent of the disaster was unlikely to become clear for some time.

The disaster comprised three waves that hit the shore in a matter of minutes of each other. But because they came at night, there was more panic than there might otherwise have been, Crapp said.

"In the dark, people were screaming, yelling and looking for people," he said.

The last such wave in the area was in 1930 when a magnitude 6.5 earthquake struck the Admiralty Islands, seismologists said.

© News Limited 1998

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