Five dead as Solomons quake sparks Pacific tsunami

A major 8.0 magnitude earthquake jolted the Solomon Islands on Wednesday with small tsunami waves buffeting Pacific coasts, leaving at least five people dead and dozens of homes damaged or destroyed.

A quake-generated wave of just under one metre (three feet) reached parts of the Solomons, and Vanuatu and New Caledonia also reported rising sea levels, before a region-wide tsunami alert was lifted.

Sirens were heard in Fiji, locals said. "Chaos in the streets of Suva as everyone tries to avoid the tsunami!!" tweeted Ratu Nemani Tebana from the Fiji capital.

Japan, which was hit by a huge tsunami in March 2011 that killed more than 19,000 people, was also on edge for a time with the national weather agency warning that a minor tsunami could come ashore. Only small waves were detected.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center cancelled its regional alert for Pacific-island nations at 0350 GMT, about two and a half hours after the powerful quake struck at 0112 GMT near the Santa Cruz Islands in the Solomons.

Australian and US monitors said a tsunami wave measuring 91 centimetres washed into the town of Lata, on the main Santa Cruz island of Ndende.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said the wave appeared to have travelled 500 metres inland, inundating Lata's airstrip as well as surrounding villages, flattening many traditional houses.

"We can report five dead and three injured. One of the dead was a male child, three were elderly women and one an elderly man," Chris Rogers, a nurse at Lata Hospital, told AFP.

Solomons Prime Minister Gordon Darcy Lilo's office said four villages on the Santa Cruz Islands had been hit by the tsunami.

"Latest reports suggest that between 60 to 70 homes have been damaged by waves crashing into at least four villages on Santa Cruz Islands," Lilo's spokesman George Herming told AFP.

"At this stage, authorities are still trying to establish the exact number and extent of damage. Communication to (the) Santa Cruz Islands is difficult due to the remoteness of the islands."

Solomon Islands Red Cross secretary general Joanne Zoleveke said she had been told at least three villages were hit, with houses washed away.

"In the Solomon Islands when we talk about villages there can be anything from 10 to 30 houses," she said.

With Lata's airstrip out of commission, officials were hoping to fly over the area early Thursday to assess the damage better.

The US Geological Survey said the quake struck the Santa Cruz Islands, which have been rocked by a series of strong tremors over the past week, at a depth of 28.7 kilometres (18 miles).

About 20 aftershocks were recorded, including one at 6.6-magnitude.

"Sea level readings indicate a tsunami was generated," the Hawaii-based Pacific warning centre said after the 8.0 quake, before lifting its tsunami alert for several island nations.

Lata Hospital director of nursing Augustine Bilve said some patients were evacuated to higher ground to prepare for any injured from the villages along the coast.

Settlements did not appear to be seriously damaged in the quake, he said, but added: "We were told that after the shaking, waves came to the villages."

In 2007 a tsunami following an 8.0-magnitude earthquake killed at least 52 people in the Solomons and left thousands homeless. The quake lifted an entire island and pushed out its shoreline by dozens of metres.

The Solomons are part of the "Ring of Fire", a zone of tectonic activity around the Pacific that is subject to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

In December 2004, a 9.3-magnitude quake off Indonesia triggered a catastrophic tsunami that killed 226,000 people around the Indian Ocean.

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