Indonesian rescuers digging through rubble find 330 bodies; quake toll expected to rise

Candles flickered at the heads of about 20 corpses, lying in the street wrapped in white sheets outside the Santa Maria church in this devastated town on Nias island.

The mainly Roman Catholic islanders escaped almost unscathed from the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami that killed more than 126,000 in Indonesia's Aceh province three months ago.

But this time, they weren't so lucky.

"It was stronger than the Dec. 26 quake," a survivor who identified himself as Ebenezer said Tuesday. "In one minute, everything was destroyed. No one had a chance to run."

The extremely powerful magnitude 8.7 tremor that hit an hour before midnight Monday toppled every building in the main street of Gunung Sitoli, Nias' biggest town.

Budi Atmaji Adiputro, a spokesman for Indonesia's Coordinating Agency for National Disaster Relief, said rescuers recovered about 330 bodies Tuesday. Vice President Jusuf Kalla speculated that the number could rise to 2,000. An unidentified official from Aceh province told Metro TV that about 100 people also died on neighboring Simeulue island.

Power was still out across the island Tuesday night as rescue workers working by candles and flashlight continued to hunt through smoldering rubble for survivors in flattened buildings. Electricity cables lay tangled in the street.

Terrified residents huddled outside rather than sleep in their damaged homes - fearing an aftershock could topple them. About 13 shocks, from 5.0-6.1 magnitude, shook the island in the aftermath of the big tremor.

"The hospital is desperate. It had a tough night," said Peter Scott-Bowden of the World Food Program. "They are short of supplies."

Helicopters evacuated 17 critically wounded survivors to the main island of Sumatra for treatment to head or chest injuries and internal bleeding.

The quake Monday night sparked panic and fears of a second devastating tsunami in countries around the Indian Ocean lashed by killer waves on Dec. 26, but no waves materialized and governments that initially warned their citizens to flee to high ground later withdrew their alerts.

From the air, it appeared that about 30 percent of buildings in Gunung Sitoli were destroyed, and there was significant damage in the island's second biggest town, Teluk Dalam.

A soccer pitch in the town was turned into a makeshift triage center, with about 10 badly injured survivors - some of them lying on wooden doors - awaiting evacuation by relief agency helicopters. People swarmed around U.N. helicopters as they landed to deliver relief supplies, but food and water were in short supply.

In Jakarta, the SCTV network showed images from the island including survivors weeping over the sarong-covered bodies of a child and a middle-aged woman. In another image, two men on a motorbike carried what appeared to be a body wrapped in sarongs.

In Jakarta, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono sent condolences to the families of the dead and said Indonesia had been offered help from around the world. "We welcome and highly appreciate it," he said.

Yudhoyono postponed a planned visit Wednesday to Australia and said he would fly to Nias to assess the damage. Australian officials said Yudhoyono was now expected on Sunday.

The quake damaged Gunung Sitoli's airstrip and prevented all but small planes from landing. The Indonesian military flew reporters over the island to inspect the damage.

Fishing villages dotted along the coastline and inland appeared to be largely unaffected.

In Gunung Sitoli, people dug through the rubble for loved ones or belongings as smoke from burning buildings hung in the air. A steeple had been knocked off one church.

The International Organization for Migration said it was sending trucks loaded with water, milk and other food items, and medical supplies to the Sumatran port town of Sibolga, where they will be ferried to Nias.

"The army and navy are mobilizing to help," said presidential adviser Tahi Bonar Silalahi.

Alessandra Boas, a member of an Oxfam International team sent to Nias by helicopter, said the aid group was heading further afield by motorcycle.

"The devastation is obvious as soon as you land," she said. "Many of the houses here have collapsed, but it's still too early for us to get a sense of the full scale of this."

Thousands of the town's residents fled to the island's hills and remained there Tuesday.

Japan and Australia offered to send troops to Nias to help with the cleanup if Jakarta asks.

The earthquake - which occurred along the same tectonic fault line as the massive 9.0-magnitude temblor that caused the Dec. 26 disaster - triggered panic in coastal communities from Indonesia to Thailand to Sri Lanka.

Residents fled to higher ground when the alarm was raised, before hearing hours later that no tsunami materialized.

In Sri Lanka, warning sirens blared along the nation's east coast and President Chandrika Kumaratunga urged people to evacuate.

"It was like reliving the same horror of three months ago," said Fatheena Faleel, who fled her home with her three children.

Dave Jenkins, a New Zealand physician who runs the relief agency SurfAid International in western Sumatra, said he feared for about 10,000 people living on the tiny Banyak Islands, close to the quake's epicenter. By late Tuesday, contact still had not been made with the islands.

The Dec. 26 disaster killed at least 174,000 people in 11 countries, left more than 100,000 missing and rendered 1.5 million homeless.

Seismologists said the epicenter of Monday's earthquake was about 120 kilometers (75 miles) north of Nias. It was felt as far away as Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.

CHRIS BRUMMITT, Associated Press Writer

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