HONIARA: Strong aftershocks have hampered efforts to send aid to tsunami-affected villages in the Solomon Islands, as the death toll following a 8.0-magnitude earthquake rose to nine.
Officials said damage on Ndende island, in the eastern Solomons, was much worse than first thought, with up to 20 villages swamped in a tsunami generated by Wednesday's quake and 6000 people homeless, double previous estimates.
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Wave hits Solomon Islands
A metre-high wave has hit the island of Ndeni after a large earthquake registering 7.9 struck the region.
''At first we thought it was going to be quite small but now it looks like it's going to be very big and communities will not be able to handle it themselves,'' the national disaster management office spokesman, Sipuru Rove, said on Friday.
''This is where we might require external assistance.''
The remoteness of the disaster zone, more than 600 kilometres from the capital, Honiara, has hampered relief efforts, with plans to fly in aid thwarted by damage to the island's airstrip in the main town, Lata.
Debris left on the runway after the quake had been cleared but the constant aftershocks rattling the island, including a 6.6-magnitude jolt early on Friday, meant pilots were wary about landing there, Mr Rove said.
A flight carrying the Prime Minister, Gordon Lilo, and senior officials to the island was believed to have turned back to Honiara early on Friday because of fears the 6.6 quake had caused fresh damage to the airstrip, he said.
The aftershocks were frustrating attempts by villagers to salvage supplies from their devastated homes to equip the makeshift camps where they were sheltering in the interior.
''They will go down [to the villages] but when there's another aftershock they run back to the hills because they're scared of another tsunami,'' Mr Rove said.
With the airfield out of action, two boats set sail from Honiara on Thursday loaded with food, water and medical supplies. They were expected to arrive on Friday or early on Saturday.
World Vision, which had a 20-strong team working on development projects on the island before the tsunami, said food and water in the hillside camps was running low and sanitation would become a problem in the next few days.
''Destruction has been widespread in and around Lata,'' World Vision said. ''Coastal wells have been covered by debris or contaminated, water tanks and toilets have been destroyed and coastal areas are littered with dead fish and poultry.
''For many families, their livelihoods also disappeared in the water.''
Australia and New Zealand are ready to provide assistance, and a Royal Australian Air Force Hercules would set off from Honiara on Friday to make a reconnaissance flight over the island, Mr Rove said.