M A I N   N E W S

2,000 feared dead in quake
70 pc of buildings collapse in Indonesian town

Banda Aceh (Indonesia), March 29
A powerful 8.7 magnitude earthquake hammered Indonesia’s west coast, collapsing homes and burying sleeping residents inside and sparking panic across Indian Ocean countries still traumatized by the tsunami disaster three months ago. Death toll estimates varied widely, from about 200 to 2,000.

While fears of another tsunami catastrophe faded today when no waves appeared in the hours immediately after the overnight quake, the force of the temblor brought down 70 per cent of the buildings in a market district in a town on nearby Nias island, officials said.

“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 in Jakarta today.

He said the estimate was based on the number of buildings damaged when the quake hit about an hour before midnight yesterday, not on bodies counted.

Hours later, Information Minister Sofyan Djalil said initial reports from the island indicated that between 100 and 200 had perished. Local officials reported nearly 300 dead, and said they were pulling bodies from the rubble.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono postponed a planned visit to Australia tomorrow and said he would fly to Nias to assess damage. The timing of his visit to Nias was not immediately confirmed, nor was a new date for Yudhoyono’s Australian trip.

Early reports suggested the town of Gunungsitoli on Nias, which lies off Sumatra’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 3 km from the 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 today 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 T B Silalahi.

The United States, Japan and Australia said they were ready to send troops to the stricken island to help with the cleanup if Jakarta asks.

The earthquake, which occurred along the same tectonic fault line as 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.

Coastal residents from Indonesia to Thailand to Sri Lanka fled to higher ground, before hearing hours later that no killer waves had materialized.

In Banda Aceh, capital of Indonesia’s Aceh province, which was hardest-hit by the December tsunami. — AP



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