Pacific quakes cause new panic but no damage

Thousands of panicking South Pacific islanders ran from coastlines after a series of strong earthquakes rocked the region creating a small tsunami today, just over a week after a massive wave killed 178 people in the Samoas and Tonga.

There were no immediate reports of damage, and tsunami warnings for 11 nations and territories were soon cancelled. But people across the South Pacific took no chances, climbing hillsides and manoeuvring through traffic-clogged streets to reach higher ground.

"There is panic here, too," Chris McKee, assistant director of the Geophysical Observatory in Papua New Guinea said. "People have rushed out onto the streets."

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre issued a regional tsunami warning after a quake with a magnitude of 7.8 struck 183 miles north-west of the Vanuatu island of Santo at a depth of 21 miles. Within an hour, two others of magnitude 7.7 and 7.3 followed.

The Hawaii-based centre cancelled the warnings after sea-level readings indicated that the wave generated by the quakes was too small to cause much damage.

A fourth quake of magnitude 7.0 was recorded by the US Geological Survey nearly 10 hours after the initial quake at a depth of 21 miles in the same ocean area north-east of Vanuatu. No tsunami alert was issued.

There were no immediate reports of injury or damage from officials in Vanuatu, a chain of 83 islands lying about 1,400 miles north-east of Sydney.

Today's small tsunami came just over a week after a magnitude 8.3 quake sparked a large wave in the South Pacific that devastated coastal villages in Samoa, American Samoa and northern Tonga. The death toll from the September 29 tsunami rose by five today to 183, after searchers in Samoa found more bodies. Another 32 people were killed in American Samoa and nine in Tonga.

That tragedy was fresh in the minds of residents of Tuvalu, a low-lying nation of eight coral atolls with about 10,000 people. Thousands fled inland after today's alerts, some clustering around the government building in the capital, Funafuti - the only multi-storey building in the country.

In Samoa, where at least 142 were killed in the September 29 tsunami, residents quickly headed for the hills. Cars clogged the roads leading inland,

The US Geological Survey said the quakes appear to be unconnected to the September 29 quake near Samoa.