A strong aftershock has rattled the Solomon Islands, hampering relief efforts to tsunami-ravaged villages.
It forced the South Pacific nation’s prime minister to abandon a visit to the stricken area where nine deaths have been confirmed.
Gordon Darcy Lilo was on a plane to Santa Cruz Island in the eastern Solomons to assess damage when the aftershock hit.
The 32-seater plane was the first to try to reach the island, but was forced to return to the capital Honiara.
It was carrying shelter kits, water carriers, medical supplies and medical staff, said Andrew Catford, the Solomons country director for relief agency World Vision.
The 6.6-magnitude aftershock damaged roads on the island’s main town of Lata and prevented aid workers already stationed there from reaching people on the coast, he said.
The aftershock, the most significant since the 8.0 earthquake that sparked Wednesday’s tsunami, did not produce any tsunami warnings itself.
Mr Catford said: “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.
“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.”
Wednesday’s earthquake triggered 5ft waves that roared inland on Santa Cruz, damaging or destroying around 100 homes.
Mr Catford said his agency now believes that 15 villages and about 6,000 people have been affected, many of them losing homes. Those estimates have risen from initial assessments, he said.
Five elderly villagers and a child who could not outrun the rushing water were killed, said George Herming, a spokesman for the prime minister.
Three more bodies have been found, but he said details of how those victims died were not immediately available.
The relentless aftershocks were forcing thousands of villagers who fled inland after the original earthquake to stay away from the coastline.
“Many of them have lost their homes and they have no shelter at the moment,” Mr 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% 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 earthquake hit the western Solomon Islands and a tsunami crashed into coastal villages.