BANDA ACEH, Indonesia - An 8.7 magnitude earthquake struck off the northern coast of Sumatra late yesterday, killing hundreds of people, authorities said, and triggering panic and mass evacuations in coastal areas leveled by the tsunami in December.
Several countries issued tsunami warnings but withdrew them after no giant waves appeared. Experts said the undersea quake triggered waves 4 to 12 inches high in different parts of the Indian Ocean.
The island of Nias off the west coast of Sumatra was reported to have suffered the greatest damage from the temblor, with numerous buildings destroyed. A popular spot for surfers, Nias suffered more than 300 deaths in the Dec. 26 disaster, which was caused by a magnitude 9.0 quake.
The Indonesian Ministry of Social Affairs reported today that the death toll was between 200 and 300.
"It is predicted, and it is still a rough estimate, that the number of the victims of dead may be between 1,000 and 2,000," Vice President Jusuf Kalla said in an interview with el-Shinta radio.
Initial reports indicated that the town of Gunungsitoli on Nias, home to 27,000 people, was severely damaged.
"From the window I see very high flames," said the Rev. Raymond Lias, according to MISNA, a Rome-based missionary news service. "The town is completely destroyed."
Yesterday's quake, which struck at 11:09 p.m., lasted more than two minutes and caused damage as far away as Medan on the east coast of Sumatra. Geologists said the quake was an aftershock of the Dec. 26 temblor and struck 110 miles to the south along the same fault line. Smaller aftershocks continued through the night and this morning.
"My legs and knees were shaking," said Popon Anarita, an aid worker who fled from the fifth floor of a hotel in Medan. "Other guests were outside already, and I noticed many of them wore pajamas or only underpants. But laughing was the last thing on my mind."
In Banda Aceh, the city hardest hit three months ago, yesterday's temblor caused widespread panic. Residents fled their houses as the earth shook, many of them crying and praying in the streets.
The earthquake was so strong that people could not stand and were forced to sit or lie on the ground. The temblor knocked out power, shrouding the city in darkness.
After the shaking stopped, many fled to higher ground out of fear that another tsunami would strike the city. Some fled without shirts or shoes. Overloaded motorbikes, cars and trucks, some with people hanging on the outside, poured out of the city, causing a midnight traffic jam. Some injuries were reported from vehicle accidents.
In Sri Lanka, warning sirens blared along the island nation's east coast and President Chandrika Kumaratunga urged people to evacuate immediately to higher ground.
"It was like reliving the same horror of three months ago," said Fatheena Faleel, who fled her home with her three children after seeing the warning on television.
In Malaysia, residents fled their shaking apartments and hotels.
"I was getting ready for bed, and suddenly, the room started shaking," said Jessie Chong, a resident of the largest city, Kuala Lumpur. "I thought I was hallucinating at first, but then I heard my neighbors screaming and running out."
The quake was felt as far away as Singapore and the Thai capital, Bangkok, more than 435 miles from the epicenter.
While officials in the United States, India, Thailand and Sri Lanka initially warned of a possible tsunami, police and religious leaders in Banda Aceh used mosque microphones to advise residents that no waves were coming and that they should not panic.
The Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami killed more than 174,000 in 12 countries, and 106,000 are still listed as missing. The majority of the victims were in Aceh, the isolated northernmost province of Indonesia where rebels have been fighting for independence for nearly three decades.
About half the city of Banda Aceh was destroyed by the tsunami, and entire families were wiped out. Tens of thousands of Acehnese remain homeless and living in camps.
Despite the magnitude of the earthquake yesterday, there were no immediate reports of fatalities in Banda Aceh.
Two people were reportedly killed in Sri Lanka as they fled from the coast.
Initially recorded as 8.2 but revised to 8.7, yesterday's quake was "the biggest aftershock we've ever had in history," said Kerry Sieh, a California Institute of Technology geologist who has studied the region.
Like the earthquake three months ago, yesterday's temblor occurred along the fault known as the Sunda megathrust, a 3,500-mile-long crack in the Earth's crust that stretches from the eastern edge of the Himalayas down the western coast of Australia - about the length of the United States.
The same forces were at work in both quakes: the India plate to the west dove beneath the Burma plate to the east, pushing the island of Sumatra another 1 or 2 meters above sea level, Sieh said.