Earthquake slams western Indonesia, kills townsfolk, sparks panic in Indian Ocean nations

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 ten times that number.

While fears of another tsunami catastrophe faded Tuesday when no waves appeared in the hours immediately after the overnight quake, the force of the temblor brought down 70 percent 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 on Tuesday morning.

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

Hours later, Information Minister Sofyan Djalil said that initial reports from the island indicated that between 100 and 200 had perished. Local officials and the Health Ministry in Jakarta reported about 300 dead.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono postponed a planned visit Wednesday to Australia 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.

"The president would like to find out the extent of the damage and casualties," Presidential spokesman Andi Malarangeng told The Associated Press. "It is certain that the visit to Australia has been postponed."

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 three kilometers (two miles) from 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 Tuesday 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 Dec. 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, thousands of people poured into the streets, most getting onto motorcycles or into vehicles to flee low-lying areas.

"It was horrible, the only thing on my mind was how to get out of the house immediately and save my 3-and-a-half month baby girl," said 27-year-old Marlina. "I ran outside with my husband to our neighbor's house and sat there for about a half-hour, and prayed that the tsunami won't come again because we have suffered enough."

In Sri Lanka, warning sirens blared along the island nation's east coast and President Chandrika Kumaratunga urged people to evacuate. The government later withdrew its tsunami warning.

"It was like reliving the same horror of three months ago," said Fatheena Faleel, who fled her home with her three children.

On Nias, about 70 percent of the houses and buildings in the market area in Gunungsitoli town collapsed from Monday night's quake, local police Sgt. Zulkifli Sirait said.

Another police officer, who identified himself as Nainggolan, said rescuers were trying to pull people out of the rubble and struggling with a lack of electricity, and that more rescuers and medics were sorely needed. Many people were panicking because of aftershocks, he said.

A quake of 5.7 magnitude struck the area Tuesday morning, the Hong Kong Observatory reported.

Dave Jenkins, a New Zealand physician and surfer who runs the relief agency SurfAid International western Sumatra, said he feared for the safety of about 10,000 people living on the tiny Banyak Islands, close to the epicenter of Monday's quake.

He said he was leaving for the islands in a boat carrying two doctors, two nurses and enough medical supplies to treat 10,000 people for three months.

Nias, a renowned surfing spot, was badly hit by the Dec. 26 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that killed at least 174,000 people in 11 Indian Ocean nations. At least 340 Nias residents perished and 10,000 were left homeless.

Indonesian officials said the epicenter of Monday's quake was 90 kilometers (56 miles) south of the island of Simeulue, off of Sumatra's western coast, and just north of Nias. It was felt as far away as Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.

MICHAEL CASEY, Associated Press Writer

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