Death Toll From Indonesian Tsunami Could Rise To Thousands As 420 Confirmed Dead

More than 400 people have been confirmed dead, with many swept away, as tsunami waves triggered by a massive earthquake crashed into the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

The death toll could rise to the thousands, warned Indonesian vice president Jusuf Kalla, with the Red Cross confirming that more than 300,000 people lived in the area hit.

Head of the national disaster management agency (BNPB) Willem Rampangilei said the death toll from Palu had reached 420 people, according to news website Kompas.

"It's estimated that 10,000 refugees are scattered in 50 points in Palu city," he was quoted by Kompas as saying.

Authorities had earlier put the death toll at 384, with many of those killed swept away by giant waves as they played on the beach.

Terrifying Moment When A Tsunami Hits Indonesia

Strong aftershocks continued to rock the coastal city on Saturday morning after waves up to 6m high swept through the scenic tourist town on Friday, triggered by a 7.5 magnitude earthquake on land.

"When the (tsunami) threat arose yesterday, people were still doing their activities on the beach and did not immediately run and they became victims," Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman of Indonesia's disaster mitigation agency BNPB said in news briefing in Jakarta.

The aftermath of the Indonesia earthquake and tsunami. Photo: AAP.

Hundreds of people were preparing for a beach festival to celebrate Palu's anniversary. The festival was due to start on Friday night.

Some people climbed 6m trees to escape the tsunami and survived, Nugroho said.

Photos confirmed by authorities showed bodies being lined up along the street on Saturday, some in bags and some with their faces covered with clothes.

An Australian Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson said earlier on Saturday the government was not aware of any Australians affected by the disaster but was continuing to make inquiries with local authorities.

Amateur footage shown by local TV stations showed waters crashing into houses along Palu's shore, scattering shipping containers and flooding into a mosque in the city.

Nugroho described the damage as "extensive" with thousands of houses, hospitals, shopping malls and hotels collapsed, a bridge washed away and the main highway to Palu cut due to a landslide.

Bodies of some victims were found trapped under the rubble of collapsed buildings, he said, adding 540 people were injured.

Dozens of injured people were being treated in makeshift medical tents set up outdoors, TV images showed.

Indonesia's meteorological and geophysics agency BMKG issued a tsunami warning after the quake but lifted it 34 minutes later.

The agency has been widely criticised for not informing a tsunami had hit Palu on Saturday, though officials said waves had come within the time the warning was issued.

Patients evacuated from a hospital after the earthquake in Poso, Central Sulawesi. Image: AAP.

The quake and tsunami caused a major power outage that cut communications around Palu and on Saturday authorities were still having difficulties co-ordinating rescue efforts.

The disaster mitigation agency has not been able to get any information from the fishing town of Donggala, closer to the epicentre of the quake 27km away. More than 600,000 people live in Donggala and Palu.

READ MORE: Lombok Earthquake Death Toll Rises To 98

A collapsed shopping mall in Donggala, Central Sulawesi. Image: AAP

Chief security minister Wiranto told TVOne the military had started sending in cargo planes from the capital Jakarta carrying relief aid.

The city's airport remained closed after its runway and air traffic control tower was damaged in the quake but officials said they were preparing to reopen to allow aid to come in.

Nugroho said no command centre for disaster recovery had been created yet.

The Palu area was hit by a less-powerful quake earlier on Friday, which destroyed some houses, killed one person and injured at least 10 in Donggala, authorities said.

READ MORE: At least 80 Killed By Earthquake In Indonesia's Lombok, Bali islands

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

With AAP.

Featured Image: AAP