A powerful undersea earthquake unleashed a tsunami that pounded the western Solomon Islands yesterday, destroying entire villages and killing an estimated 15 people, officials said.
The wall of water triggered by the 8 magnitude quake -- which witnesses said was up to 5m high -- swamped towns, flattened homes, and sparked panic among residents.
"My heart goes out to all of you in this very trying time," Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said in an address to the nation.
He warned the death toll would probably rise after rescue teams reach the stricken areas and the true extent of the damage became known.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued a regionwide warning immediately after the quake, stretching as far as Japan, but later withdrew the alert when it became clear other countries would not be seriously affected.
At least 15 people were killed in and around Gizo, the main town in Western Province and a popular tourist and diving spot about 40km from yesterday's quake epicenter, its provincial leader said.
"Reports have come in that more than 15 people died, just around Gizo, but with the other islands I cannot tell you," Western Province Premier Alex Lokopio told Radio New Zealand.
Police said they had reports of at least 14 dead, 12 in the Gizo area and two elderly men in nearby Choiseul Province.
Telephone lines to the area were down, making it hard to assess the number of casualties and damage.
A helicopter and aircraft sent to assess the damage were diverted to ferry the injured to hospitals. A fuller assessment would emerge when they returned to the area today, police spokesman Mick Spinks said.
But the head of the Solomons National Disaster Council, Fred Fakari, told journalists in Honiara: "Some villages are completely wiped out."
The bone-rattling quake struck shortly after 7:39am just 10km beneath the sea floor about 350km northwest of Honiara, the US Geological Survey said.
"It was just a noise like an underground explosion," said Dorothy Parkinson, a Gizo resident. "The wave came almost instantaneously. Everything that was standing is flattened."
Within five minutes of the quake, waves between 3m and 5m high roared ashore and went up to a kilometer inland, inundating buildings and sending thousands fleeing for higher ground, witnesses said.
"There wasn't any warning -- the warning was the earth tremors," Lokopio told New Zealand Radio. "It shook us very, very strongly and we were frightened, and all of a sudden the sea was rising up."
Along the coast "all of the property was washed away to the open sea," he said.
The government's communications unit reported six bodies found floating in the sea near Gizo, hours after the quake. It said other bodies could not be retrieved because of rough seas.
The US Geological Survey reported aftershocks measuring up to 6.7.
Across the Pacific, governments from Australia to New Caledonia evacuated schools and urged coastal residents to move to higher ground, but no damage was reported.
Lokopio said they badly needed emergency supplies for Gizo, where residents remained on a hill behind town because of aftershocks.
"What we desperately need now is water, tents and food because almost 3,000 to 4,000 people are now living on the hill at Gizo," he said.
Lokopio said that most government buildings and businesses in Gizo had been destroyed as well as houses in low-lying areas.
Gizo dive shop owner Danny Kennedy, said the surge carried detritus with it.
"There are boats in the middle of the road, buildings have completely collapsed and fallen down," he said by mobile phone as he toured Gizo.
More massive aftershocks are expected.
"We should be aware there is a better than 50-50 chance that there'll be another magnitude 8 earthquake in the Solomon Islands in the next few hours to the next few weeks," Kevin McCue, director of the Australian Seismological Center, told the Australian Associated Press.
"This happened in 1971, 1973, 1974 and 1977, so we have a good track record of this kind of thing happening," McCue said.
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