At least 11,300 dead in Asian disaster

MORE than 11,300 people were killed in six countries as tidal waves from a massive undersea earthquake smashed into coastlines across Asia yesterday .Whole villages were washed away in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India, sunbathers were dragged out to sea and snorkellers pulled across jagged reefs at tourist havens in Thailand.

MORE than 11,300 people were killed in six countries as tidal waves from a massive undersea earthquake smashed into coastlines across Asia yesterday .

Whole villages were washed away in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India, sunbathers were dragged out to sea and snorkellers pulled across jagged reefs at tourist havens in Thailand.

The death toll from the most powerful earthquake in four decades climbed steadily throughout yesterday as authorities counted bodies washed up on beaches and left hanging like ragdolls from trees. Foreign tourists were among the dead and the thousands of others who were reported missing. Tens of thousands fled the coasts for higher ground, fearing aftershocks and further flood surges.

Worst hit was Sri Lanka - an island nation some 1,600 kilometres west of the epicentre. The death toll stood at 4,500, according to police and Tamil Tiger rebels and one million people were displaced. Sri Lanka's government declared a national disaster.

The 8.9-magnitude earthquake - the strongest since a 9.2 magnitude quake in Alaska in 1964 - struck around breakfast time at its centre, off the west coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, about 1,620 kilometres northwest of Jakarta, the capital, the US Geological Survey said. It was 10 kilometres deep, and was followed by a half-dozen powerful aftershocks, ranging in magnitude from almost 6 and 7.3.

The quake occurred at a place where several huge geological plates push against each other with massive force. The survey said a 1,000-kilometre section along the boundary of the plates shifted, motion that triggered the sudden displacement of a huge volume of water.

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The reverberations sent waves as high as six metres thundering into the coasts of six countries, sweeping away tourists, fishermen, hotels, homes and cars.

"Suddenly this huge wave came, rushing down the beach, destroying everything in its wake," said Simon Clark, 29, a photographer from London vacationing on Thailand's Ngai island.

"People that were snorkelling were dragged along the coral and washed up on the beach, and people that were sunbathing got washed into the sea.'

A government disaster centre said 289 people, including a number of Western holidaymakers, were killed and more than 3,600 injured in southern Thai resorts.

"We initially thought it was a terrorist attack, then the wave came and we just kept running upstairs to get on as high ground as we could,' Gerrard Donnelly, another British tourist, staying at a resort in Phuket, Thailand, said.

In India, the waves swept away boats, homes and vehicles killing nearly 2,300 people in the southern states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Pondicherry, officials said.

Tamil Nadu's beaches resembled open-air mortuaries as fishermen's bodies washed ashore, and retreating waters left behind others killed inland. Seawater flooded the streets of Cuddalore town, flipping over dozens of cars and leaving some vehicles perched atop road dividers. At least 20,000 people were evacuated from the region, officials said.

At least 300 people were killed on India's Andaman and Nicobar islands, and another 700 were missing and believed dead, Press Trust of India cited the region's police chief as saying.

"I was shocked to see innumerable fishing boats flying on the shoulder of the waves, going back and forth into the sea, as if made of paper,' said P. Ramanamurthy, 40, an Andhra Pradesh resident.

"Many boats were upturned, but fishermen were still holding on to them,' he said. "They also were pushed into the sea. It was shocking.'

Towns in Indonesia's Aceh province, the closest region to the earthquake's epicentre, were swamped by the waves. The health ministry said 2,435 people were killed in the region, and hundreds more were missing. In Lancuk village, a reporter for The Associated Press saw several bodies wedged into trees, apparently left there by receding waters.

At least 30,000 people were reported to have fled their homes.

At least 49 were killed on the island of Nias, to Sumatra's west and close to the epicentre of the quake.

In Malaysia, at least 42 people, including foreign tourists swimming or riding jetskis, were killed on the resort island of Penang, police and government officials said.

The force of the earthquake shook unusually far afield, causing buildings to sway hundreds of miles away, from Singapore to the city of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, and in Bangladesh, hours after the region's Christian communities had finished Christmas celebrations.

From the Vatican, Pope John Paul II led appeals for aid for victims, a call that was quickly echoed across much of Europe as relief efforts were organised and governments rushed to check whether their citizens were among the missing or dead.

"The Christmas holiday has been saddened by the news that comes from southeast Asia about the powerful earthquake,' the pontiff said during his customary Sunday address.

"Let us pray for the victims of this enormous tragedy and assure them of our solidarity for all those who suffer, while we hope that the international community acts to bring relief to the stricken populations,' he said.

The 25-nation European Union promised to quickly deliver 3 million euro (£2 million) in emergency aid.

"For all the huge advances in the control of our lives through science and technology, an earthquake on this scale is truly humbling as well as profoundly tragic,' said British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

Holidays turned to disaster in southern Thailand, which welcomes hundreds of thousands of tourists to its southern beaches during the Christmas season.

The owner of two resorts on Phi Phi island - where the Hollywood blockbuster "The Beach', starring Leonardo DiCaprio, was filmed - said that 200 of his bungalows were swept out to sea, along with some of his employees and customers.

"I am afraid that there will be a high figure of foreigners missing in the sea, and also my staff,' said Chan Marongtaechar, who was in the Thai capital of Bangkok at the time. He estimated that 700 people could have been on the beach.

High waves inundated the Maldives, a string of 1,192 coral atolls off the southwestern coast of India, injuring one Italian tourist and forcing the airport to close, an official said. A British man died from a heart attack minutes before the waves hit.

At least two children were killed when a boat capsized in Bangladesh, local authorities said.

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