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Aircraft searches for bodies in the Pacific

Rescuers pulled bodies from the mud and twisted rubble and fished bloated corpses out of the sea off Samoa yesterday as the death toll from a series of tsunamis passed 150.

A spotter aircraft circled above looking for bodies, dropping smoke flares to pinpoint their location for a boat to collect. Within an hour, five were hauled ashore.

The death toll stood at 146 in Samoa, but officials said it was rising, with hundreds of people missing. Authorities in Tonga confirmed nine deaths.

About 20 villages were destroyed in Samoa and scores were flattened in nearby American Samoa. "We've seen pick-up trucks carrying the dead... back to town," said a New Zealand tourist, Fotu Becerra. "We were shocked when we saw the first one but after three hours, it seemed normal."

Four powerful tsunamis which were generated by a large under-sea quake crashed into Samoa and American Samoa on Wednesday, destroying in minutes a paradise of palm trees, resorts and pristine beaches.

The waves, at least six metres high, ripped buildings apart and washed people out to sea, some who had been sleeping in their beds, survivors said.

One mother watched in horror as her three children who had been playing in the sand were swept away. Many died after being crushed by debris in the floodwaters.

Two refrigerated shipping containers, behind the main hospital in the Samoan capital Apia, served as makeshift morgues after the hospital could accept no more corpses.