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Rescue and relief effort begins in cyclone-hit Vanuatu

Authorities and relief workers in Vanuatu are assessing the damage caused by one of the region's worst weather disasters. The true extent of the destruction from Cyclone Pam is not yet known.

International disaster relief agencies sending teams to Vanuatu, a tiny Pacific island nation of 267,000 people, following the category five storm cyclone Pam, which hit overnight on Friday. At its peak, Pam covered the entire country on satellite maps, with winds of more than 300 kilometers (185 miles) an hour.

Meteorologists have said Pam was one of the worst storms of its kind in the area on record.

The storm's powerful winds, heavy rain and flooding devastated Vanuatu's capital, Port Vila, destroying houses and roads, and uprooting trees. But not much is known so far about how some of Vanuatu's other islands have fared. There are fears outlying islands were hit especially hard.

"There's not a lot of information about the islands in the north and the south - particularly in the south, the southern islands of Vanuatu, where we have grave concerns for people's welfare," said Inga Mephum, Vanuatu program director for Care International, on Australia's ABC television.

The death toll is believed to be around eight people, but it's feared that number could rise heavily once more information is available. Communications and electricity across Vanuatu remain down.

The UN relayed unconfirmed reports that 44 people had died in the northeastern Penama province.

Stranded president

Cyclone Pam has moved off to the southeast. But the destruction has stranded President Baldwin Lonsdale, attending a UN conference on disaster risk reduction in Japan. He is unable to fly into Vanuatu.

"I stand to appeal on behalf of the government and people of Vanuatu to the global community to give a lending hand in responding to these very current calamities that have struck us," Lonsdale said.

The Port Vila airport remains closed but may partly reopen on Sunday to allow in relief planes, authorities said.

Australia and New Zealand are preparing to assist Vanuatu with the cleanup, while the EU has pledged one million euros ($1.05 million) for emergency efforts.

A meteorologist with the Fiji Weather Service, Neville Koop, said the cyclone was weakening as it moved away from Vanuatu. He said he expected that it would pass between Fiji and New Caledonia before touching New Zealand's North Island on Monday.

Destruction in Tuvalu

The tiny Pacific nation of Tuvalu has also been badly hit by the cyclone, with Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga saying on Sunday that 45 percent of the population was affected, with houses and crops washed away.

Sopoaga told Radio New Zealand International that the damage had raised health and safety concerns, as cemeteries had been destroyed and supplies of food, medicine and water could be interrupted.

Tuvalu, which lies some 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) northeast of Vanuatu in the Pacific Ocean, consists of nine coral atolls with a population of less than 11,000.

jr, tj/gsw (Reuters, dpa, AFP)

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