HOHHOT - Police in north China have begun investigating malicious warnings of an imminent earthquake that prompted people to flee their homes into the streets on Thursday and Friday.
Residents of Baotou, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, flocked to the city square after receiving text and e-mail messages saying the city would be the center of a major quake Thursday afternoon.
Although authorities in the region dismissed the warnings as a hoax, many people preferred to play it safe in the city, where 26 were killed and 2.1 million were left homeless after a 6.4-magnitude quake in 1996.
Li Shuang, a Baotou resident, who took his wife and daughter to the square Thursday, said many people had been receiving similar hoaxes since April 9, but Wednesday's deadly quake in Qinghai Province had stoked fears.
"After seeing reports on the devastation by the 7.1-magnitude quake in Yushu, I would rather believe such rumors and take early precautions, although I am aware that we were tricked," said Li .
He said he received a phone message, which read like a statement from the National Seismological Bureau, saying an earthquake measuring 6.5 to 7.2 on the Richter scale would strike at 1:19 p.m. Thursday.
A taxi-driver surnamed Wang, in Hebei's Xingtai City, said his family were told a tremor would happen early Friday. "My daughter told the family to stay alert at night because she heard earthquake rumors at school on Thursday."
A 6.8-magnitude earthquake and strong aftershocks left an estimated 8,064 people dead in Xingtai in 1966.
A spokesman for the Baotou public security bureau said police had launched a probe into the source of the hoax messages, which also warned that Beijing and neighboring Hebei Province would be affected.
"No earthquake forecast has been issued by the National Seismological Bureau and the Inner Mongolia Regional bureau in wake of the earthquake in Yushu," said Bao Jiandong, director of the Inner Mongolia Seismological Bureau.
Beijing's municipal seismological bureau released a statement Thursday, saying that its own seismological data, showed "no destructive earthquakes will hit Beijing in the near future."
The bureau warned people not to be deceived by unsubstantiated rumors.
Police in north China's Shanxi Province detained five people for spreading earthquake hoaxes in February. Their postings and messages prompted tens of thousands of panic-stricken residents into the streets in at least five Shanxi cities on February 20 and 21. Many people spent the night outdoors.