Two strong quakes rattle nerves in Asia

Two magnitude-6,3 earthquakes in southern Asia struck eight hours apart on Monday, causing panic but little damage in a region still traumatised by last month’s quake-triggered tsunami that killed tens of thousands.

A pre-dawn quake centred under Indonesia’s Sulawesi island—far to the east of where the much more powerful magnitude-9,0 temblor struck on December 26—sent thousands of people running to higher ground in the city of Palu.

The epicentre of the earthquake was on land—unlike last month’s quake—and caused no tsunami. About 30 wooden houses and some shops were damaged, police said.

“They were shouting ‘water, water’ because they feared waves,” said Dr Riri Lamadjido, a physician at the city’s main Undata hospital, which received no injured patients as a result of the quake.

Later on Monday, panic briefly spread through the streets of the Indian coastal city of Madras after residents felt an earthquake centred in the Bay of Bengal, near the Andaman Islands.

Police said no damage or injuries were reported, but people could be seen running in the city after it was jolted.

Samuel Cherian, the senior police officer in Campbell Bay, the southernmost island in the Andaman archipelago, said: “I was sitting in my office upstairs this morning at 10.45am when I felt a sudden jolt. My sentry downstairs also felt it.
But there is no damage to property or life.”

The 6,3-magnitude quake hit near the islands at 4.22am GMT, seismologists at the Hong Kong Observatory said. The epicenter was about 1 740km south-east of Calcutta.

The United States Geological Survey reported that the earlier quake in Sulawesi, which occurred at 8.10pm GMT on Sunday, also registered a magnitude of 6,3.

Further reflecting the jitters in the region less than a month after the disaster, thousands of people in western Thailand fled their homes early on Monday after rumours spread that an earthquake had cracked four major dams, which were about to burst.

The governor of Kanchanaburi province—which was not hit by the December 26 tsunami—went on the radio and the head of the government agency in charge of dams held a news conference to try to reassure people that the rumours were false and urge them to return home.

The December 26 quake off Indonesia’s western Sumatra island triggering waves that killed up to 228 000 people in 11 countries around the Indian Ocean.

Fewer relief camps

Meanwhile, United Nations officials said the number of relief camps in Indonesia’s Aceh province has dropped by about 75% in the past week.

The “dramatic decrease” in the camps—from 385 to less than 100—is good news because relief settlements can cause survivors to become too dependent on outside help, said Joel Boutroue, head of UN relief efforts in Aceh.

Most people are moving in with relatives, and a few are returning to their villages along the devastated west coast, he said.

To smooth the delivery of aid to hundreds of thousands of survivors, governments in the two worst-hit nations of Indonesia and Sri Lanka were trying on Monday to ease tensions with indigenous rebel movements that threatened to hold up supplies.

Indonesian officials agreed to meet with Aceh rebel leaders later this week in Finland to negotiate a ceasefire in the province, where separatists have been fighting for an independent homeland for nearly 30 years, according to Finland’s Crisis Management Initiative, headed by former President Martti Ahtisaari.

Despite an informal ceasefire announced by both sides since the disaster, there have been isolated reports of fighting, raising concerns about the security of relief operations in Aceh. On Sunday, the Indonesian military said it had killed 200 alleged rebels in the past four weeks.

In Sri Lanka, Norway’s foreign minister met separately with the country’s prime minister and a top guerrilla leader over the weekend to help resolve a dispute over aid distribution on the island nation, where the tsunami killed about 31 000 people and displaced another one million.

The Tamil Tigers have repeatedly accused the government of obstructing aid deliveries to rebel-controlled areas in Sri Lanka’s north and east—allegations the government denies.

At Norway’s urging, the two sides agreed to discuss the creation of a joint body that would ensure relief is fairly disbursed. If they do agree to such cooperation, it would represent serious progress in a conflict that has lingered for two decades.—Sapa-AP

Slobodan Lekic and Lely T Djuhari in Jakarta, Indonesia, Burt Herman and Mike Casey in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, Dilip Ganguly in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and Hrvoje Hranjski aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln contributed to this report

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