They said over 100 people had been injured in the quake, which measured 6.9 on the Richter scale.

"According to the latest news in the information centre, 23 people died and the number is still growing," said Muhamad Son Ani, district police chief in the coastal town of Nabire.

"This is only the report from the city, not counting those outside the city because communication lines are dead," he added.

Another police official said the victims included a policeman on duty at the local parliament building in Nabire.

Hospital damaged

Son Ani said 62 injured people had been treated and sent home, 30 were in a military hospital and about 60 in a local hospital. The local hospital itself had been badly damaged.

Nabire, with a population of about 26,000, is about 7km from where Indonesian earthquake centre officials placed the quake's epicentre.

"Residents are still afraid and worried that there will be other aftershocks because we can still feel the shaking. People are setting up tents outside their houses"

Muhamad Son Ani,
Police chief of Nabire

B Rumbiak, Nabire meteorology station chief, said that there had been 11 aftershocks. 

"The victims died because of fallen houses and buildings which could not endure earthquakes. And it was quite a heavy quake," said Fauzi, coordinator of the national earthquake centre.

Son Ani said: "Residents are still afraid and worried that there will be other aftershocks because until now we can still feel the shaking. People are setting up tents outside their houses."

He said the dead included at least four children from one month to three years. 

Officials said the quake had also damaged some roads in Indonesia's eastern-most province, and Nabire airport had been closed due to a crack in the landing strip.

Largest quake

France's earth sciences observatory in Strasbourg said it was the largest quake measured in the region since 2000.

Rugged but resource-rich Papua, formerly known as Irian Jaya, is 3,000km east of Indonesia's capital, Jakarta. Papua is mountainous or jungle-clad and sparsely populated. Roads are scarce and many areas can only be reached by air.

The vast archipelago that makes up Indonesia, the world's fourth most populous nation, stretches along a geologically active area of frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.