29 March 2005

Up to 2 000 feared dead

A powerful 8.7-magnitude earthquake hammered Indonesia's west coast, flattening houses, killing up to 2 000 people and sparking widespread panic across Indian Ocean countries still traumatised by the December 26 quake and tsunami disaster.

"It is predicted - and it's still a rough estimate - that the number of the victims of dead may be between 1 000 and 2 000," vice-president Jusuf Kalla told the el-Shinta radio station on Tuesday morning.

He said the estimate was based on the number of buildings damaged when the quake hit about an hour before midnight on Monday, not on bodies counted. Local officials earlier said nearly 300 were dead.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono would fly to the stricken Nias island to assess damage.

Extent of damage not yet known
"The president would like to find out the extent of the damage and casualties," Presidential spokesperson Andi Malarangeng said early on Tuesday.

Early reports suggested the town of Gunungsitoli on Nias, which lies off Sumatra island's western coast, was worst hit.

"From the window I see very high flames," the Rome-based missionary news agency MISNA quoted Father Raymond Laia as saying by telephone. Laia was stationed about 3km from town. "The town is completely destroyed," Laia said, adding that reports said thousands were injured.

Thousands more fled to the island's hills and remained there Tuesday morning.

"It's difficult to get information - all the government officials have run to the hills because they are afraid of a tsunami," said presidential envoy TB Silalahi.

The earthquake - the largest aftershock yet of the massive 9.0-magnitude temblor that caused the December 26 Indian Ocean tsunami - triggered panic in several Asian countries when governments issued warnings that another set of deadly waves may be about to hit.

In Banda Aceh, capital of Indonesia's Aceh province, which was hardest-hit by the December tsunami, the latest quake cut electricity and thousands of people poured into the streets, most getting into vehicles to flee low-lying areas.

"It was like reliving the same horror of three months ago," said Fatheena Faleel, who fled her home with her three children.

Japan's Meteorological Agency said it had warned six Indian Ocean nations of the possibility of a tsunami after its offshore tidal gauges detected a 25cm tsunami off Sri Lanka and a smaller one off the Maldives.

Several hours later, the agency lifted its warnings saying the danger of the water rising further had eased.

On Nias, about 70% of the houses and buildings in the market area in Gunungsitoli town collapsed from Monday night's quake, local police Sergeant Zulkifli Sirait said.

Indonesian officials said the epicentre of Monday's quake was 90km south of the island of Simeulue, off of Sumatra's western coast, and just north of Nias.


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