Massive earthquake causes panic in Asia
A huge earthquake shook the coast of Indonesia last night, killing hundreds and triggering fears of a new tsunami. Around the Indian Ocean, people fled their homes as governments from Malaysia to Sri Lanka ordered mass evacuations of their coastlines.
One thing was on everybody's mind: the terrible wave of 26 December 2004 which came after a quake like this, left 300,000 dead and 1.5 million homeless, and laid waste to entire provinces. Everyone feared it was happening again.
In the US, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre in Hawaii issued an emergency warning that the quake had "the potential to generate a widely destructive tsunami" and warned that all coastal areas within 600 miles of the epicentre should be evacuated without delay.
As the hours passed, fears of another catastrophe eased, however. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre said if no tsunami was seen within three hours of the quake, which occurred at 11.09pm local time (5.09pm BST), authorities could assume the danger had passed.
Late last night, officials in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and India withdrew their tsunami alerts and thousands began to return tentatively to their coastal homes.
But fears remained that a small-scale tsunami could be heading south of the epicentre towards Mauritius and Madagascar, following reports of a small tidal wave in the remote Cocos Islands. Officials in Australia also warned that there was a possibility of a tsunami hitting its western shores.
The fact that there is no tsunami warning system for the Indian Ocean is believed to have contributed to the huge death toll in December's tsunami. In the wake of that disaster, Indian Ocean countries agreed to set up an early warning system, but as it is not yet in place, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centrestepped in to issue alerts.
The Indonesian island of Nias, located off the west coast of Sumatra and the closest land to the epicentre, was the worst hit. In the town of Gunungsitoli, about 70 per cent of buildings had collapsed in the market district. An official in the town said that "at least 1,000" people had been killed. Agus Mendrofa, the town's deputy mayor, said: "The situation here is extreme panic."
Indonesia's Metro TV quoted one Nias resident as saying: "There is much damage. Many people are also trapped."
The quake, which was felt as far away as Malaysia and India, had its epicentre in the sea about 200 miles off the south coast of Indonesia, and had a magnitude of 8.7 on the Richter scale. This made it the seventh biggest recorded earthquake by magnitude in the past 100 years. The earthquake which triggered the Boxing Day tsunami had a magnitude of 9.0.
In Banda Aceh, the Indonesian city worst affected by the 26 December tsunami, the quake cut electricity supplies and thousands of people stumbled into the streets in the darkness. An NGO official based in Banda Aceh sent out a telephone message saying people were fleeing after "a very damn big earthquake".
The earthquake lasted for two minutes, much longer than any of the aftershocks that have hit Banda Aceh daily since the Boxing Day disaster. In Trincomalee, on Sri Lanka's east coast, sirens wailed as an evacuation was ordered. State television announced that people should move at least 2kminland and to higher ground.
The quake was so powerful that people ran into the streets in fear in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, some 300 miles away. The Malaysian authorities ordered an evacuation of tall buildings.
In low-lying coastal areas of Malaysia, police went from door to door ordering residents to flee into the hills. In India, also badly hit in December, the government issued an alert but said it had no information that a tsunami was on its way.