SYDNEY (AP) — Strong aftershocks rattled the Solomon Islands on Friday, hampering relief efforts to tsunami-ravaged villages and forcing the South Pacific nation's prime minister to forgo a visit to the stricken area, where nine deaths have been confirmed.
Prime Minister Gordon Darcy Lilo was on a plane to Santa Cruz Island in the eastern Solomons to assess damage when an aftershock hit, said Silas Lilo, a spokesman for his office, forcing his plane to return to the capital, Honiara.
The plane made a second attempt to reach the island and landed successfully late Friday, said Andrew Catford, the Solomon Islands director for the relief agency World Vision. The plane — the first to attempt to reach Santa Cruz since Wednesday's tsunami — was carrying shelter kits, water carriers, medical supplies and medical staff, though the prime minister was not able to join the crew on the second trip. A boat with more supplies was expected to arrive Friday night, Catford said.
Officials were already struggling to reach the isolated region when a magnitude-6.6 aftershock hit Friday morning, damaging roads in the island's main town of Lata and preventing aid workers stationed there from reaching people on the coast, Catford said. The aftershock, the most significant since the 8.0 earthquake that sparked Wednesday's tsunami, didn't produce any tsunami warnings itself.
"My staff said it felt stronger than the initial earthquake and people are very concerned. Most of Lata town was evacuated. It's like a ghost town," Catford said. "We've had over 115 aftershocks, but unlike all the others, this one moved vertically up and down. For the first time, it's created cracks in the roads."
A stronger magnitude-7.1 magnitude aftershock struck late Friday. There was no tsunami risk and no immediate reports of damage.
Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr announced Friday that his government will help deliver emergency food and medical supplies and conduct aerial reconnaissance of disaster-affected areas. Carr plans to fly to the Solomons on Sunday to discuss the recovery effort.
Wednesday's earthquake triggered waves 1.5 meters (5 feet) tall that roared inland on Santa Cruz, damaging or destroying around 100 homes.
Catford said his agency estimated that 15 villages and up to 7,000 people had been affected, many of them losing homes. But earlier fears that the tsunami may have wiped out villages on other islands eased Friday after the first aerial flyover of the region confirmed the damage was limited to Santa Cruz, Catford said.
Nine bodies have been pulled from the wreckage, including five elderly villagers and a child who couldn't outrun the rushing water, said George Herming, a spokesman for the prime minister. Several other people were still missing.
The relentless aftershocks were forcing thousands of villagers who fled inland after the original quake to stay away from the coastline.
"Many of them have lost their homes and they have no shelter at the moment," Herming said. "They are still residing on high ground because of the fear of the aftershocks."
The Solomons comprise more than 200 islands with a population of about 552,000 people. They lie on the "Ring of Fire" — an arc of earthquake and volcanic zones that stretches around the Pacific Rim and where about 90 percent of the world's quakes occur.
More than 50 people were killed and thousands lost their homes in April 2007 when a magnitude-8.1 quake hit the western Solomon Islands and a tsunami crashed into coastal villages.
Associated Press writers Nick Perry in Wellington, New Zealand, and Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, contributed to this report.