| A building damaged by the quake in Bantul, Yogyakarta, on Saturday. (AP)
Yogyakarta (Indonesia), May 27: A heartland Indonesian province spared by the tsunami 18 months ago was left devastated by an earthquake this morning, with over 3,000 people dead and buildings flattened near ancient Buddhist and Hindu heritage sites.
Officials struggling to cope with the human tragedy said they didn’t know if Borobudur, the famed ninth-century Buddhist temple, was affected. But a staff member at a hotel opposite the shrine said the complex was intact.
Nearby, Prambanan, a spectacular Hindu temple, suffered some damage to its smaller structures but the main building was intact.
The magnitude 6.2 quake struck at 5.54 am (4.24 am Indian time) near the ancient city of Yogyakarta, the cultural capital of Indonesia on the main island of Java and 440 km east of Jakarta, as most people were sleeping. The worst affected place was Bantul.
“I couldn’t help my wife,” said Subarjo, 70, sobbing as he sat beside her body. “I was trying to rescue my children ... and then the house collapsed. I couldn’t help her.”
Activity picked up at the nearby Mount Merapi volcano, which has been spewing large clouds of hot gas and ash for weeks, with one eruption today sending debris some 3.5 km down its western flank. A geologist warned the quake could still spark a large eruption.
Amid the chaos, rumours of an impending tsunami from the sea 30 km away sent thousands fleeing to higher ground in cars and on motorbikes. “What is unbelievable is the people talk about tsunami. People are saying water is approaching.... People living on Merapi are also coming down because of rumours the volcano is erupting,” said Yogyakarta resident Tjut Nariman.
The panic was understandable in a country that has been buffeted by one tragedy after another since the December 26, 2004, tsunami ' triggered by a 9.15-magnitude quake off Sumatra ' killed 132,000 Indonesians and 100,000 more around the Indian Ocean rim.
A quake had caused nearly 1,000 deaths in Sumatra in March 2005 and two landslides claimed 110. Bird flu killed 35, an air crash left 149 dead, and a series of bomb blasts claimed 52, including 23 in the tourist paradise of Bali on October 1.
Indonesia is prone to seismic upheaval because of its location on the so-called Pacific “Ring of Fire”, an arc of volcanos and fault lines encircling the Pacific basin.