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Panic wave

New Delhi, Dec. 30: 'Waves are coming! Waves are coming!'

Thousands scrambled inland at Nagapattinam, shouting.

On Sunday, there was no alert and 125,000 are now feared to have died in the tsunamis. This morning, there was a warning and more might have died in stampedes.

From southern India to the Andamans, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, once struck by disaster, people ran in fear of being visited by another in a wave of panic that started not off the coast of Sumatra but on the rocky ground of New Delhi.

A home ministry official said the ministry had issued an alert for all the areas which had been hit earlier. 'It is a precautionary measure.'

'A number of experts outside (the) country are suggesting that another tsunami may hit (the) Indian Ocean today afternoon in the event of an earthquake of high intensity which may happen near (the) Australian region,' said a message from the ministry to state governments.

The state governments immediately went to work warning people to stay off the coastline, triggering panic and throwing relief operation out of kilter.

There were tremors aplenty today in countries as far apart as Colombia (magnitude 5.3) and Japan (5), but there were no immediate signs of giant waves and the US Geological Survey said it was unaware of any aftershock large enough to trigger a fresh tsunami.

At 7 in the evening, the warning was withdrawn but not before a public spat between two ministries responsible for coordinating disaster warnings topped the daylong fiasco. Coastal states were told to remain vigilant.

The home ministry, headed by Shivraj Patil, and the science and technology ministry, under Kapil Sibal, held each other responsible for the false alarm and took their quarrel a step further. They could not even agree on the identity of 'experts outside' who had predicted an earthquake in the Australian region that could result in tsunamis.

Sibal's ministry said the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) had forwarded a report received from Terra Research, a company specialising in earthquake monitoring devices, which had made the prediction. The home ministry said the IMD had sent a report from the Australian Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre.

The only act in the drama they could agree on was the Indian Space Research Organisation receiving a prediction by e-mail and forwarding it to the IMD.

'The warning was issued about 10 am. The intention was not to cause panic but on the basis of information coming to us, particularly from experts, to be cautious,' said A.K. Rastogi, secretary, disaster management, in the home ministry.

He read out excerpts of the alert from the Australian Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre. 'It was a cautious alert,' he said.

Sibal said the home ministry need not have taken the 'expert opinion' forwarded to it so seriously. Earthquakes cannot be predicted. 'Any opinion by any agency, official or otherwise, that an earthquake will occur at any time is unscientific, hogwash and ought to be rejected,' he said.

In a message to relief workers who had shifted out of the coastal belt, Sibal emphasised that 'they are not in danger. It is not in the national interest that any agency should create panic'.

But there were no clear answers why Sibal's department forwarded the 'unscientific' report to the home ministry. Sibal contended that the IMD had 'only' forwarded a forecast by Terra Research for the ministry's information which was not to be made public.

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