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Aid ship heads for Solomons

Staff and wires

Cyclone Zoe battered the islands of Tikopia, Fataka and Anuta with winds exceeding 300 kilometers an hour (186 mph) and massive waves
Cyclone Zoe battered the islands of Tikopia, Fataka and Anuta with winds exceeding 300 kilometers an hour (186 mph) and massive waves

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CNN's Andrew Stephens reports on the destruction and clean up following a cyclone in the Solomon Islands.
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Cyclone Zoe roared through the Solomon Islands on Sunday leaving widespread destruction
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• Interactive: Solomon Islands 

CANBERRA, Australia -- Relief supplies are finally on their way to remote islands in the Solomons chain, amid fears entire villages may have been buried by sand after Cyclone Zoe struck on Sunday.

Late Thursday a relief boat departed for the islands of Tikopia and Anuta as criticism mounted over the lengthy delay in launching a relief effort.

"It's absurd that nearly a week after the cyclone we still don't know what casualties there are, or the needs of the people," said Keith Locke, New Zealand Greens Party legislator and foreign affairs spokesman, according to The Associated Press.

No emergency supplies have been delivered to the islands since Cyclone Zoe struck on Sunday.

"The patrol vessel finally departed at 8 p.m. last night (0900 GMT on Thursday), carrying with it the relief supplies," Brian Beti of the Solomon Islands disaster management council told Reuters news agency. It is estimated the journey will take three days.

An Australian plane flew over the islands on Wednesday and observed people going about their business, Alan March, Assistant Director-General of AusAid told CNN.

However after examining photographs, authorities are now concerned entire villages may have been buried when winds exceeding 300 kilometers per hour (186 mph) and massive waves blew through the islands.

The number of casualties resulting from the cyclone are still unclear.

"We won't know until the assessment team reaches the island later today exactly what the situation is," said Val Stanley of Oxfam Australia.

The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) C-130, carrying a team of photographers and aid observers, viewed the damage from about 500 feet.

"Both the RAAF observers and the Australian Aid program observers could find no evidence of either injuries or casualties," March said.

"Certainly damage to vegetation, certainly the traditional housing has been blown over and ... there is some damage to crops and gardens," he added.

Aid agreement

Australia, France and New Zealand have an agreement to coordinate disaster relief for islands in the Pacific, however this has not been invoked, according to Reuters.

Australia has instead contributed A$70,000 (US$39,500) for fuel and relief supplies and New Zealand has given NZ$70,000 (US$36,600) towards disaster relief.

The Solomons government is bankrupt and the national economy relies on foreign aid after years of ethnic militia fighting.

The National Disaster Management Office has increased its estimate of the number of people on the two worst hit islands -- Tikopia and Anuta -- to about 2,000 from around 1,000, a number taken from a census several years ago.

Solomons radio said that although some fatalities and injuries were expected, high casualties were unlikely as the islanders would have used traditional cyclone shelters.

Tikopia, Anuta and Fataka are volcanic islands in the Santa Cruz group of the sprawling Solomons archipelago and located about 3,000 kilometers (1,900 miles) northeast of Australia. Oval-shaped Tikopia, the biggest of the three, measures just five kilometers (three miles) at its longest point.

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