| Indonesians search for survivors in a damaged shopping district in Sibolga. (Reuters)
Gunungsitoli (Indonesia), March 29 (Reuters): More than 1,000 people were feared killed in a massive earthquake which hit a remote Indonesian island famed as a surfing paradise, reducing large parts of its main town to rubble.
The Indian Ocean epicentre of last night's 8.7 magnitude quake was just about 160 km southeast of the upheaval three months ago which triggered a tsunami that left nearly 300,000 people dead or missing across Asia. Despite widespread panic across Asia last night and tsunami warnings in several nations, there was no killer wave.
Indonesia's disaster centre said around 1,000 people were killed in the latest tremor. The 9.0 magnitude quake on December 26 was two to four times more powerful but this was still one of the eight biggest in the world since 1900.
Indonesia's vice-president said the toll could reach 2,000.
The quake struck near Nias island off Sumatra and devastated the main town, Gunungsitoli. The airstrip was damaged and the first relief plane managed to land only late today.
'The quake was really powerful,' said 30-year old carpenter Yulianus Zebua.'The earth was shaking continuously so we walked like drunkards. People walked, used motorcycles and cars to flee to the hills.'
Many of the buildings in the town of 30,000 people were reduced to rubble. Bodies were being collected at a town mosque and relief workers were treating the injured on a soccer field. Injured children wept and most residents prepared to sleep outdoors, their homes either ruined or too dangerous to live in.
There was no electricity or water. One woman recited the Quran by candlelight at a temporary camp. 'I just have to be patient and keep my faith strong in God,' said Sisfaryani, 24. Relief workers from international aid group Oxfam said roads in the town had collapsed.
'Bodies are being pulled from the rubble as I speak,' said Alessandra Villas-Boas, a member of Oxfam's assessment team. 'The water system has failed completely and huge holes have been made in the roads.
In the Sumatran city of Medan, Erni Ginting, a spokeswoman for the disaster centre for Aceh and North Sumatra, said: 'We figure there is now 1,000 people dead on Nias.'
Nias is a rugged and remote island about 1,400 km northwest of Jakarta with a population of around 700,000. Its beaches are regarded as a surfing paradise for a fabled right-hand break, a regular wave that courses at an angle from left to right.
Another relief official said at least 15 people were dead and dozens injured on the island of Simeulue, north of Nias, one of the first reports of deaths at other locales in Sumatra.
The quake, which hit shortly before or just after midnight across Asia, spread terror in western Indonesia, Sri Lanka and coastal parts of India, Malaysia and Thailand, the areas devastated by the December tsunami. Despite the late hour, the countries largely coped well, although there was considerable panic.
In contrast to three months ago, when Asian nations were not even part of a warning network, the risk was immediately relayed by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii and distributed across the region.
Police, soldiers, monks, fishermen and residents of coastal areas across the Indian Ocean used megaphones, radio, telephones and temple bells to warn of the possibility of another tsunami.
In Banda Aceh, the province on the mainland hardest hit by last year's tsunami, panic-stricken residents rushed into the streets after yesterday's quake.
'We went down to the street and people began to panic. Some people screamed: 'Water! Water! The water is coming again',' said Yudisia Arafah, a 23-year-old government worker in Aceh.