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Killer wave erases 3 villages

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The village of Arop was built on a sand spit and had a population of about 2,000. It no longer exists.

"There was nothing left except for coconut trees," said Lusien Romme, who said he saw "the sea rising up and coming toward me" when a 23-foot wall of water crashed into the northwest coast of Papua New Guinea on Friday.Local authorities said the official death toll Monday was at least 700, mostly children and the elderly. But other officials gave much higher death tolls.

John Tekwi, governor of West Sepik province, where the wave hit, was quoted by Australian Broadcasting Corp. as saying at least 3,000 people died.

"Where is everybody else?" Tekwi asked.

Hundreds of injured were awaiting medical help, while others were believed to have fled to higher ground. An estimated 6,000 people were left homeless.

Missionaries and villagers were burying the dead where they lay on the beaches. Others patrolled the sea in motorboats, towing nets to reclaim floating bodies, while salt-water crocodiles reportedly fed on corpses.

"There were so many bodies together I had to move the boat slowly to pass through them," said fisherman Jerry Apuan. "I was afraid. It was the first time I had seen so many bodies."

The wave, also known as a tsunami, was created by a magnitude-7 undersea earthquake and destroyed at least three villages in Papua New Guinea, a nation on the island of New Guinea about 90 miles north of Australia where some live a near-Stone Age existence amid jungles and swamps.

Prime Minister Bill Skate appealed for more aid and doctors, saying that children were drinking unhealthy water, Australian Broadcasting Corp. television reported.

"People are lost, they are confused, they really don't know what has hit them," Skate was quoted as saying.

Marc Sindek, an oil company manager from Vanimo, about 60 miles west of the affected area, said villagers had told him salt-water crocodiles that live along the coast were feeding on the corpses.

The combined population of the affected district is not precisely known, but government chief secretary Robert Igara estimated it at between 6,000 and 10,000 people.

Many survivors were in shock.

Romme, who spoke with the Australian Associated Press by telephone from his hospital bed, broke two fingers and injured his ribs and a shoulder when the wave hurled him into a coconut tree and then into the Sissano lagoon. His wife was killed.

"We heard a large bang, then saw the sea rising up. We had no choice but to run for our lives," Paul Saroya, a resident of Nimas village, told Australian Broadcasting Corp. television.

Papua New Guinea, with a population of 4 million, occupies the eastern half of the island of New Guinea. It has a mountainous, jungle-filled interior that has only been explored in the past 20 to 30 years, along with lush tropical beaches on the coastal plains.

The area hit by the wave consists of jungle and swamps where tribes rely on subsistence farming and fishing. Most live in homes made of jungle materials and built on beaches.