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Earthquake Triggers Tsunami in Solomon Islands

A massive undersea earthquake sent a tsunami crashing into the South Pacific nation of Solomon Islands on Monday, destroying at least one town and killing at least three people, officials said.

The Pacific region, from Australia to Hawaii, went on high alert for several hours after the magnitude-8 quake struck between the islands of Bougainville and New Georgia, though officials canceled a region-wide tsunami warning after the danger period passed.

Police and residents said a wave several meters (yards) high crashed ashore at Gizo, a regional center in the country's west just 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the temblor's epicenter, inundating buildings and causing widespread destruction.

"All the houses near the sea were flattened," as water "right up to your head" swept through the town, resident Judith Kennedy told The Associated Press by telephone. "The downtown area is a very big mess from the tsunami and the earthquake," she said, adding that aftershocks were still being felt several hours later. "A lot of houses have collapsed. The whole town is still shaking."

Another witness, dive shop owner Danny Kennedy, estimated the height of the wave at 10 feet (3 meters). "I'm driving down the street -- there are boats in the middle of the road, buildings have completely collapsed and fallen down," he said in a telephone interview.

"We're just trying to mobilize water and food, and shelter for people at the moment because ... in the town alone there's going to be between 2,000-3,000 homeless. It's not a very good scene at the moment."

A man who answered the telephone at Gizo police station said up to eight people had been killed -- including a man, a woman and six children -- but the deaths were unconfirmed. The phone cut out before the man could give his name or where the information about the deaths came from.

Reports of casualties were varied as communications to the area remained patchy. Julian Mcleod of the National Disaster Management Office in the capital, Honiara, told Sky News only three deaths had been reported.

Another town in Western Province, Munda, was also believed to be badly damaged, officials and the national broadcaster said, but communications were difficult and details were not confirmed.

The U.S. Geological Center said the magnitude 7.6 earthquake struck about 10 kilometers (6 miles) beneath the sea floor about 350 kilometers (215 miles) northwest of the Solomons capital of Honiara at 7:39 a.m. (20:39 GMT Sunday). It later upgraded the strength to magnitude to 8.0.

The Hawaii-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said quakes of that strength could cause a destructive tsunami and issued a warning bulletin for the Solomon Islands and neighboring Papua New Guinea.

It ordered a a lower-level "tsunami watch" for other places, including most South Pacific countries, but later canceled the alert. A cautionary alert for Hawaii was also canceled. Sea level readings indicated a 15-centimeter (6-inch) in Honiara, the center said.

A spokesman for Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, Deli Oso, said the quake was felt in Honiara but no damage was done.

The Australian Bureau of Meteorology said there was no tsunami threat to Australia's northeast coast, one of the areas listed on the earlier warning.