27 December 2004

Tidal waves sweep tourists away

Bangkok - Huge tidal waves struck southern Thailand's popular resort island of Phuket on Sunday, sweeping at least four foreign tourists out to sea, sinking boats and forcing the evacuation of hotels, officials said on state radio.

"As of now there are four foreign tourists missing and we are conducting a search," deputy Phuket governor Pongpao Ketthong said.

Phuket's major beach town, Patong, was flooded and extensive damage had been reported from a series of two-metre-high waves that slammed the tropical island's west coast at about 08:30, a rescue worker said.

"Many tourists were swept into the sea" but exact numbers were not known, the rescue worker, Mongkol Ketsunthorn, said on the radio.

Christmas and new years are peak seasons in Phuket, a resort island that sees hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors each year.

"Tourists were also on the (nearby) beaches of Karon, Kata and Kamala when a giant wave suddenly hit and swept everything up into the sea," he added.

He said all shops, kiosks and hotels along Patong beach were damaged by the tsunami, which were the likely result of a massive earthquake that struck west of the Indonesian island of Sumatra early on Sunday, which the US Geological Survey said measured 8.5 on the Richter scale.

Several international hotels were completely evacuated on emergency police orders. Hotels on Patong were not answering their telephones.

"Police came to the hotel and ordered all guests to leave immediately," a manager at the Panwa Beach Resort on Phuket's southwest coast told AFP, adding that the waves had not caused extensive damage at her property.

Frantic relatives of boatsmen, some of whom apparently captained tourist boats in Phuket waters, called in to say the boats had capsized or went missing.

Tourists and residents were reported rushing to higher ground or clogging the road routes to the north heading off the island, which is connected to the Thai mainland by a road bridge.


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