BANDA ACEH, Indonesia (AP) — A major earthquake struck late yesterday off the west coast of Indonesia, and a local government official said 296 people were killed in collapsed buildings. Thousands panicked in countries across the Indian Ocean as tsunami warnings were posted.

Beth Dykstra
A Sri Lankan family, survivors of Asian tsunami of Dec. 26, listens for updates of a possible tsunami at a temporary shelter for the displaced, after the government issued a warning, in Colombo, Sri Lanka. (AP PHOTO)

Fears of another catastrophe similar to December’s devastating tsunami eased within hours, as officials in countries closest to the quake’s epicenter said there were no reports of big waves striking their coasts after the temblor was reported.

Early reports of damage and casualties were confined to the island of Nias, off the Sumatran coast, close to the epicenter.

The quake collapsed about 70 percent of houses and buildings in the town of Gunungsitoli, said police Sgt. Zulkifli Sirait.

Agus Mendrofa, deputy district head on Nias island, told el-Shinta radio station that 296 people were killed. He said this figure was based on reports from humanitarian workers on the island.

“We still cannot count the number of casualties or the number of collapsed building because it is dark here,” Sirait said in a telephone interview. “It is possible that hundreds of people trapped in the collapsed buildings died.”

Nias, a renowned surfing spot, was badly hit by the 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami on Dec. 26 that killed at least 175,000 people in 12 Indian Ocean nations and left another 106,000 missing. At least 340 residents of Nias perished and 10,000 were left homeless.

The U.S. Geological Survey said yesterday’s quake, which occurred at 11:09 p.m. local time (11:09 a.m. EST), measured a magnitude of 8.2. A later reading put the magnitude at 8.7, said Paul Earle, a USGS geophysicist.

A tsunami warning was issued in Thailand and Sri Lanka, although officials later canceled it. The only tsunami reported within four hours was a tiny one — less than four inches — at the Cocos Islands, a group of 27 islands about 1,400 miles west of Australia with a population of about 600, meteorologists in Sydney said. No damage was reported.

“It seems this earthquake did not trigger a tsunami. If it had, the tsunami would have hit the coastline of Sumatra by now,” said Prihar Yadi, a scientist with the Indonesia Geophysics Agency. “And if there’s no tsunami on the coastline near the epicenter of the quake, there will not be one heading in the other direction.”

Indonesian officials said the epicenter was in the Indian Ocean about 56 miles south of the island of Simeulu, off Sumatra’s west coast, and just north of Nias. It was described by a USGS geologist as an aftershock of the devastating Dec. 26 quake.

Preliminary indications are that energy from the quake might be directed toward the southwest, said Frank Gonzalez, an oceanographer with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle. He stressed it was based on “very scanty information” about the epicenter and magnitude.

Yesterday’s quake had an epicenter about 110 miles southeast of where the Dec. 26 quake was centered. The USGS said it occurred on a segment of the same fault line that triggered the Dec. 26 quake, the world’s biggest in 40 years.

Two aftershocks — one measuring 6.0 and another measuring 6.7 — were reported in the same region late yesterday and early today, the USGS said.

The quake occurred at a depth of 18.6 miles, and was centered 125 west-northwest of Sibolga, Sumatra, and 150 miles southwest of Medan, Sumatra, the USGS said.

The depth does not mean a lot for a quake this large, Earle said, calling it a near-surface earthquake and comparable to the one in December. After that quake, the agency initially recorded the depth of the temblor at six miles. Shallow earthquakes like that generally are more destructive because the seismic energy is closer to the surface and has shorter to travel.

Yesterday’s quake was considered to be at a moderate depth.

The Dec. 26 quake triggered a huge tsunami that swept across the Indian Ocean at the speed of a passenger jet. More than 1.5 million people were left homeless in 11 countries.

In Banda Aceh, the Sumatran city hit hardest in December, Monday’s quake spread panic as it briefly cut electricity. Thousands were awakened and poured into the streets.

The quake lasted about two minutes and felt like gentle swaying, like a rocking chair, causing people to feel dizzy.

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