Tsunami warning sparks panic in Asia

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The Independent Online

Thailand issued a tsunami alert last night after a strong earthquake struck near the Andaman and Nicobar islands off India. But other Indian Ocean countries said they believed there was no risk of a new tsunami, and Indian authorities said there were no reports of casualties from the earthquake.

At least 200,000 people died in the Boxing Day tsunami last year in countries around the Indian Ocean. Governments have been jittery about the risk of a new tsunami. Yesterday's earthquake, which measured 7.3 on the Richter scale, was powerful enough to be felt as far away as Madras in India and Phuket in Thailand, both hundreds of miles from the epicentre.

In Thailand, an official tsunami warning was issued just before midnight local time, interrupting programming on all national television networks. In beach areas, people were hurriedly evacuated to higher ground. More than 5,400 people died in Thailand in December's disaster. But long after Thailand's National Warning Preparedness Centre's predicted time for a tsunami to hit, 12.12am local time, there was no sign of one. Less than 90 minutes after the alert had been issued, the warning was cancelled.

Samir Acharya, the head of a non-governmental Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology in the islands, said by phone: "Everything is fine. I haven't heard of any damage."

Still, many panicked in the islands, and in southern India. "My driver ran up to my house and said some people had come out on the roads," Mr Acharya said. "There is no harm done. But some people are panicking in the Andaman Islands. The sea is very rough. Yesterday and today we have witnessed a high tide," said Rashid Yusuf, president of the Nicobarese Youth Association.

The US Geological Survey said last night's earthquake was "unlikely to spark a tsunami". In Sri Lanka, where more than 30,000 people died in last year's tsunami, authorities said they believed there was no risk of a repeat and had not issued any warning.

It is the second time a tsunami warning has been issued after an earthquake in the Indian Ocean region since the Boxing Day disaster. In April, there were warnings after an earthquake struck the Indonesian island of Nias. There was no tsunami then, although more than 1,000 died from the earthquake itself.

The epicentre of the quake was about 85 miles west of the Nicobar chain of islands, where about 10,000 people died in last year's tsunami. "We have got reports from all inhabited islands through the police and there has been no casualties or damage," the lieutenant-governor of the islands, Ram Kapse, said last night. "There has been no tsunami alert." Indian Ocean countries have agreed to set up a new tsunami warning centre, after no warning was given of the Boxing Day tsunami, which meant that people were still on beaches when it hit.