Earthquake, tsunami leaves 'many victims' in Indonesia, official says

An Indonesian official says the earthquake and tsunami that hit Central Sulawesi left many victims, as rescuers raced to the region.

Giant wave triggered by quake smashed into 2 cities, several settlements

Earthquake-affected patients are treated at a makeshift hospital in Poso, Indonesia, early on Saturday. (Yoanes Litha/Associated Press)

The earthquake and tsunami that hit Indonesia's Central Sulawesi province left many victims, a disaster official said Saturday, as rescuers raced to the region and a reporter with The Associated Press saw numerous bodies in a hard-hit city.

Disaster officials haven't released an official death toll but reports from three hospitals seen Saturday by the AP listed 18 dead.

Dawn revealed a devastated coastline in Central Sulawesi where the three-metre high tsunami triggered by a magnitude 7.5 earthquake Friday smashed into two cities and several settlements.

Disaster agency spokesperson Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said in a television interview there are "many victims."

In Palu, the capital of Central Sulawesi province, the city of more than 380,000 people was strewn with debris from collapsed buildings.

The city is built around a narrow bay that apparently magnified the force of the tsunami waters as they raced into the tight inlet.

A man stands amid the damage caused by a tsunami in Palu. (Associated Press)

An AP reporter saw bodies partially covered by tarpaulins and a man carrying a dead child amid the wreckage.

In the nearby city of Donggala a large bridge spanning a coastal river had collapsed.

Indonesian TV showed a smartphone video of a powerful wave hitting Palu, with people screaming and running in fear. The water smashed into buildings and a large mosque already damaged by the earthquake.

Communications with the area are difficult because power and telecommunications are cut, hampering search and rescue efforts.

Nugroho said the runway of Palu's airport is not damaged and essential aircraft can land there.

A car swept away by tsunami is seen stuck under a damaged building in Palu. (Dede Budiyarto via AP)

Indonesia's president on Friday night said he had instructed the security minister to co-ordinate the government's response to a quake and tsunami that hit central Sulawesi.

Joko Widodo also told reporters in his hometown of Solo that he had called on the country's military chief help with search and rescue efforts.

UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said UN officials were in contact with Indonesian authorities and "stand ready to provide support as required."

Indonesia is prone to earthquakes because of its location on the "Ring of Fire," an arc of volcanoes and fault lines in the Pacific Basin.

In December 2004, a massive magnitude 9.1 earthquake off Sumatra in western Indonesia triggered a tsunami that killed 230,000 people in a dozen countries.