Massive sea waves, triggered by earthquakes in Southeast Asia, crashed into coastal villages over a wide area of Sri Lanka yester-day, killing about 1,000 people and displacing 500,000 others, officials and hospital doctors said.
"I counted 24 bodies in a stretch of only 6km," said Gemunu Amarasinghe, an Associated Press photographer who went to one of the affected area south of Colombo. "I saw bodies of children entangled in wire mesh" that is used to barricade seaside homes.
"There were rows and rows of women and men standing on the road and asking if anyone has seen their family members," Amarasinghe said.
"I also saw people bringing in bodies from the sea beaches and placing them on roads and covering with them sarongs," he said.
Amarasinghe said he was told that some of the victims were sucked into the sea when they rushed to retrieve beached fish as first waves hit and retreated.
"The first waves brought in fish and when the waves went down some of the fish remained. Some residents went to get them when the second waves hit," Amarasinghe said.
Officials and hospital doctors said a total of 1,000 people had died so far and warned the death toll was still rising.
Military spokesman, Brigadier Daya Ratnayake, confirmed that up to 500 people were dead, but said he would not be surprised if the figure crossed the 1,000 mark.
The tidal waves also hit the neighboring Maldives, where the authorities closed the airport.
Maldives government spokesman Ahmed Shaheed said waves as high as 1m hit the low-lying capital Male, two-thirds of which was under water. He said there were unconfirmed reports of casualties in other islands.
"The airport itself had been flooded and remains closed," he said in a statement.
In Sri Lanka, the government called the events a national disaster.
Parts of Sri Lanka's northeastern districts of Muttur and Trincomalee were inundated by waves as high as 6m, said D. Rodrigo, a Muttur district official. Over 700 deaths were reported in the districts. The others died in southern Galle and Bentota districts.
"The police station in Muttur is under water and the area is badly affected," police spokesman Rienzie Perera said.
"It is a very tragic situation," he said, adding that some hospitals in the area were unable to treat the wounded. Perera said over half-a-million people have been affected.
In Colombo, the Seismological Department said that they believe the tidal waves were caused by earlier earthquakes.
A massive 8.9 temblor off the coast of Indonesia rocked large areas of Southeast Asia and was felt as far as southern India, which is near Sri Lanka.
Elsewhere, flash floods shut the port in the capital, Colombo, and displaced thousands of people in dozens of villages along the eastern and southern coasts, police and witnesses said.
"It was very scary when I saw the waves hitting the port," said R. Mohammed, who runs a transport business at the port.