Just three months after the horror, massive quake triggers tsunami fears

A POWERFUL earthquake struck off the west coast of Indonesia late yesterday, sending residents in several countries fleeing in panic fearing that it would cause the region's second tsunami disaster three months on.

The US Geological Survey (USGS) said the quake occurred on a segment of the same fault line that triggered the December 26 earthquake, the world's biggest in 40 years, and measured a magnitude of 8.7. The temblor occurred at 11.09pm local time (5.09pm Irish time).

Tsunami warnings were issued in Thailand, Japan and Sri Lanka, although officials in Thailand later called it off for that country. The only tsunami reported within four hours was a tiny one less than four inches at the Cocos Islands, 1,400 miles west of Australia, meteorologists in Sydney said.

The worst damage was reported on Nias Island, off the Sumatran coast, close to the epicentre of the earthquake, and dozens of people may be buried in the rubble, said Agus Mendrofa, deputy district head on the island.

"Hundreds of buildings have been damaged or have collapsed. People who were standing fell over," Mr Mendrofa said. "We're not sure about casualties, but there may be dozens of people buried in the rubble."

UN disaster relief coordinator Jan Egeland said there were unconfirmed reports of deaths. "The hard-hit population of western Sumatra have been again struck by a very large earthquake," Mr Egeland said.

The USGS said yesterday's quake was an aftershock of the December 26 quake that sent giant waves crashing into coastlines around the Indian Ocean's rim, killing more than 125,000 people in 11 countries.

Thai officials said the threat of a tsunami from the quake has probably passed. "We are now telling people that they can return to their homes," Chalermchai Aekkantrong, deputy director of Thailand's meteorological department, told the local ITV television network.

"We believe it's safe now. We believe that if it (a tsunami) would have happened, it should have happened by now."

Sri Lanka's presidential office issued a tsunami warning soon after the quake struck. Tens of thousands were killed in the region on St Stephen's Day.

"It's still not clear if a tsunami will hit, but we are taking all precautionary measures," President Chandrika Kumaratunga said on state television.

She asked people not to panic but to move inland, adding that authorities were in constant contact with the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre in Hawaii. State television said that residents along the coast should move at least two kilometres inland.

Saman Perera of the Geological Survey of Sri Lanka said his agency had issued a "national warning of an impending natural disaster that is going to happen", as a precaution.

Along the east coast the worst hit by the December 26 tsunami sirens blared telling residents to evacuate immediately to higher ground, police chief Neville Wijesinghe said.

Indonesian officials said initial fears that the temblor would be followed within a few minutes by huge waves crashing ashore as occurred in Sumatra just over three months ago appeared to be unfounded.

The quake lasted for about two minutes far longer than most of the daily aftershocks that have rocked Sumatra since December 26.

"People are still traumatised, still scared, they are running for higher ground," said Feri, a 24-year-old recovery volunteer.

Tremors also were felt throughout peninsular Malaysia's west coast, causing thousands of residents to flee high-rise apartment buildings and hotels. There were no immediate reports of any casualties or major damage.

"I was getting ready for bed, and suddenly, the room started shaking," said Kuala Lumpur resident Jessie Chong. "I thought I was hallucinating at first, but then I heard my neighbours screaming and running out."

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