PM commits NZ to help Indonesia after quake

An international aid response was unlikely to be needed after yesterday's Indonesian earthquake, which has killed more than 1000 people and made countless homeless, Prime Minister Helen Clark said today.

"The Indonesian government has responded very, very quickly and it seems unlikely there would a need for an international response on anything like the scale of the Boxing Day tsunami," Miss Clark said.

"Nonetheless, well targeted support for Indonesia at this time is going to be very important," she told National Radio.

Miss Clark said international aid agencies were very conscious of problems that followed a natural disaster of this size because of their experiences after the tsunami.

Last night she expressed New Zealand's condolences to Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono who has postponed his visit to New Zealand because of the quake.

An 8.7-magnitude earthquake struck under the sea off Indonesia's west coast at 11.09pm on Monday (4.09am yesterday NZ time), and early estimates are that up to 2000 people may have been killed.

Miss Clark said two families contacted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs yesterday with concerns two surfers may have been in one of the worst-hit areas around Nias island.

The New Zealand embassy in Indonesia had made inquiries but there was no indication the surfers were in the area, she said.

New Zealand's aid has so far been directed through SurfAid, a small agency based in the area after the Boxing Day tsunami, which was founded by New Zealand doctor, David Jenkins.

SurfAid was today trying to find a helicopter to take doctors to Nias, funding body NZAid confirmed today.

"As soon as they have one they'll take it up," NZAid spokeswoman Catrina McDiarmid told NZPA.

"In the meantime they also arranged four boats and they're staffing those with local doctors and nurses which will go to Nias."

NZAid would pay for the helicopter and the boats, she said.

Three of the vessels were charter boats and the fourth a fuel boat, SurfAid chief executive Andrew Griffith said in a statement today.

The medical teams will comprise a GP, a surgeon and four nurses, he said.

The first boat was expected to arrive tonight (NZT) at Nias' biggest town Gunung Sitoli, where up to a third of buildings were destroyed by the quake.

Each boat will spend about 10 days in the affected zones treating patients, conducting emergency evacuation to hospitals on Sumatra and distributing emergency rations.

The teams will evacuate some people on the SurfAid boats to Sibolga, on the Sumatran mainland due east of Nias.

"Sibolga has approximately 60 beds available at the moment, with a range of specialist doctors, and has not been significantly damaged by the earthquake, so is in a position to receive the victims of the earthquake."

The teams would also assess the acute and medium term needs of the population.

Miss Clark praised SurfAid, which has its New Zealand base in Gisborne, saying the organisation was "tremendously helpful at the time of the tsunami".

She said New Zealand was "fortunate that we do have SurfAid pretty well on the spot (after yesterday's quake)."

Though New Zealand was a "small player" in international aid terms, "it's important that New Zealand is seen to be a friend at a time of crisis in our region".

Miss Clark said after a telephone conversation with the Indonesian president last night, Mr Yudhoyono deferred Saturday's visit here until April 6 and 7.

"I have told President Yudhoyono that the New Zealand Government will consider further assistance once the full picture of the earthquake disaster emerges," she said.

The 9.0-magnitude quake that struck the same region on December 26, sparked a tsunami in the Indian Ocean that killed up to 300,000 people in 11 countries.

Mr Griffith said initial reports from Nias island were that 80 per cent of the buildings in Gunung Sitoli had been destroyed.

People in the affected areas hit by the tsunami, have been further traumatised by quake, he said.

The size and timing of the quake, which hit when most locals were in bed, may have caused "significant loss of life".

However, "all reports indicate that a considerable number of the population of Nias and Simelue fled to higher ground and will remain there until the chance of danger has passed".

Extensive damage to communications in the area means there has been limited contact with Nias, and no contact with the neighbouring Simelue or Banyak Islands.

He said the capacity of the local health department in the islands to deal with the crisis was "limited in the extreme, and it is expected that medical facilities will be severely affected".

SurfAid worker Jude Barrand said the quake was felt strongly in Medan, Sumatra, about 240km north of the quake's epicentre .

Describing the quake in an email, he said: "One hell of a nasty jolt though that lasted far too long!"

He said the first eye witness reports from Nias indicated Gunung Sitoli had been "flattened" and people were trapped in wreckage.

"We have not been able to get in contact with all of our crew as communications are spectacularly bad, however it is unlikely the more remote areas will have been spared by an earthquake of that intensity."

- NZPA

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