UPDATE: EARTHQUAKE CAUSES SERIOUS DAMAGE IN VANUATU

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PORT VILA, Vanuatu (January 3, 2002 - New Zealand Herald/Reuters)---A powerful undersea earthquake measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale caused widespread damage to the tiny Pacific nation of Vanuatu, police said today.

There were no reports of deaths but the main bridge at Teoma, linking North Éfaté to Port Vila, was destroyed and the wharf cut was off by landslides. Other bridges had badly buckled.

Earlier reports said there had been only minor damage.

The Denver based U.S. Geological Survey's National Earthquake Information Center said the preliminary magnitude of the quake was 7.3 on the Richter scale.

It said the quake was about 50 km (30 miles) west of the capital Port Vila, and about 33 km (20 miles) below ground level.

The quake was felt strongly in Port Vila but there were no immediate reports of injuries.

Agence France Presse said the Vanuatu government was expected to ask Australia for aid.

The news agency reported a police spokesman in Port Vila as saying: "It was very violent and lasted more than a minute and we are still feeling the aftershocks six hours later.

"Some people have been taken to hospital with broken bones, that kind of thing, but we have heard of no deaths, although we haven't heard from the outer islands yet.

"The National Disaster Committee is meeting the Red Cross and we are trying to assess the damage."

Police said the main road had been ripped apart and there were cracks in many buildings.

"Rocks the size of houses have cut off the wharf but there doesn't seem to be any structural damage as yet to the wharf. We may have to use barges to get supplies from the ships," the spokesman said.

"There's no panic and the problem so far is we have a lot of people clambering over rocks trying to get a look, which might be dangerous if we get more landslides."

He said many buildings had cracks in them but were still standing, although the Department of Education was evacuated as a precaution.

In June, hundreds of people in Vanuatu went without food and fresh water for four days when a volcano spewed out a thick blanket of ash covering the remote island of Paama in a layer of ash that destroyed crops and contaminated fresh water supplies.

The Lopevi volcano has erupted at least 22 times since 1863, most recently in 1982.

For additional reports from The New Zealand Herald, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/ New Zealand Herald.

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