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A number of lives are believed to have been lost as Cyclone Tomas, with wind gusts of around 280km/h, continued to smash Fiji tonight knocking out power and communications, say authorities.

"I think some lost their lives but it is just a few, but what we have been hearing from some of the islands is the devastation and the wind and the storm surges were too much," Fiji National Disaster Management Office director Pajiliai Dobui told Agence France-Presse today.

Hundreds of New Zealanders are known to be in the country but the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said there had been no reports of any casualties so far.

Mr Dobui said numbers could not be confirmed by police until communications were restored with affected islands in the Lau group and the island of Taveuni, to the east of the main islands of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu.

Rain had drenched northern areas with up to 350mm over two days and was still falling.

National Disaster Management Office spokesman Anthony Blake said power, water, sewage and other services were disrupted in many northern areas, with all airstrips and airports closed and storm surges smashing into coastal villages and schools. More than 18,000 people were in 240 government shelters, he said.

Initial damage assessments will likely be made tomorrow, when airplanes are expected to survey the northern islands and Vanua Levu, Blake said.

NZ assistance

New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully said tonight an Air Force C-130 Hercules was on standby to head to Fiji as soon as weather conditions eased in the wake of Cyclone Tomas.

"Fiji authorities have declared a state of disaster and requested international assistance," Mr McCully said.

"New Zealand is working closely with our partners under Franz - the joint France, Australia and New Zealand disaster relief arrangement - on how to best respond to the situation in Fiji."

Mr McCully said the Hercules was able to carry emergency supplies to Fiji, and also assist with aerial reconnaissance of outer islands that were in the path of Cyclone Tomas.

"Cyclone Tomas has forced more than 18,000 Fijians into evacuation centres, and local accounts put the cyclone as one of the worst to hit Fiji in 20 years," he said.

"New Zealand always stands willing to help the people of Fiji in the face of natural disasters, and our ongoing political differences with the interim government will not inhibit our response."

State of disaster

Fiji's main island of Viti Levu was spared the worst of the devastation but there were reports of extensive damage from the second largest island, Vanua Levu, and eastern outlying islands, Fiji officials said.

A state of disaster was declared in the north and east of the country after the National Disaster Council, under military leader Voreqe Bainimarama, met today to assess the first damage reports.

"The National Disaster Council has declared a state of disaster in the northern division and eastern division," National Disaster Management Office operations officer Anthony Blake said.

"We have so far got a tally of over 50 homes destroyed - a very serious issue. We expect these figures to increase for the next few days," Mr Blake told reporters.

The full extent of the devastation was still unclear as communications to many of the smaller islands and isolated areas on Vanua Levu remained cut.

Northern islands

Authorities were particularly worried about the northern islands of Cikobia and Qelelevu, because there had been no communications since they were hit by the cyclone yesterday, Mr Blake said.

Telecommunications and electricity remained out in many parts of Vanua Levu, and water and sewerage supplies were also affected.

Healthcare facilities and police stations were among the buildings damaged in Vanua Levu.

On Gau island to the east of Viti Levu, Lamiti village head teacher Solomone Rasiga told Fiji commercial radio the villagers sheltered overnight from fierce winds and heavy rain.

"The wind is very strong, there is a lot of damage to crops," he said.

Houses near the sea had been badly damaged and some small houses and outbuildings near the river had been washed away, he said.

Cyclone Tomas to weaken

Matt Boterhoven, Fiji's Tropical Cyclone Centre's senior forecaster, said Tomas was still a Category 4 storm, but was expected to weaken to Category 3 by late tonight as it moves into the open sea south of the island group.

Sea surges of up to 7 metres were reported in the Lau island group, which was hit head-on by the cyclone, causing major flooding, Boterhoven said, adding that the surges would take at least 36 hours to subside.

Schools and government offices remained closed and a curfew was extended until early tomorrow for all areas except the relatively lightly affected western region of Viti Levu.

The international airport at Nadi in Viti Levu's west reopened today although domestic air and shipping services remained suspended.

Cyclone Ului

In Wellington a Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Mfat) spokesman said officials were closely monitoring both Tomas and Tropical Cyclone Ului as they hit Fiji and the Solomon Islands respectively.

Tomas remained a slow-moving category 4 system with estimated average winds of 170km/h, and gusts of up to 270km per hour. The cyclone was moving south at 18km/h, and by 10pm tonight was expected to lie 300km southeast of Suva.

Ului was to the southwest of Rennell Island in the southern Solomon Islands. It remained a category 4 system and was expected to continue moving slowly west-southwest toward Queensland Coast

The spokesman said New Zealanders currently in Fiji and Solomon Islands should follow any instructions issued by the local authorities, monitor local media reports and register their details with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade at www.safetravel.govt.nz

- NZPA, AP