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Tidal waves kill more than 700 in Asia
Updated: 2004-12-26 16:42

The world's most powerful earthquake in 40 years rocked northern Indonesia on Sunday and launched tidal waves that swamped villages and seaside resorts across Asia, killing more than 700 people in five countries.

Some 300 were reported killed in Sri Lanka, 286 in India, 94 in Indonesia, 61 in Thailand and seven in Malaysia. Hundreds were reported missing, and the death toll was expected to rise.

The U.S. Geological Survey said a magnitude-8.9 quake one capable of massive damage struck off the coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra at 8 a.m. Sunday. The USGS revised the quake's size upward from magnitude-8.5.

Soon after it hit, immense waves or tsunamis crashed into several countries, and aftershocks in the magnitude-7 range were seen, the USGS said, raising the possibility of a catastrophic regional death toll.

Waves crashed into coastal villages over a wide area of Sri Lanka some 1,000 miles west of the quake's epicenter killing some 300 people and displacing thousands of others, said military spokesman Brig. Daya Ratnayake.

Parts of the northeastern districts of Muttur and Trincomalee were inundated by waves as high as 20 feet, said D. Rodrigo, a Muttur district official.

In India, beaches were turned into virtual open mortuaries with bodies of people caught in the tidal wave being washed ashore.

At least 150 were recovered around the coastal town of Cuddalore, said deputy Superintendent of police K. Panniselvan. Some 100 others were found around Madras, the capital of Tamil Nadu, said Police Chief R. Nataraj. Thirty-six were killed in neighboring Andhra Pradesh, said state Chief Minister Y. Rajashekhar Reddy.

Officials at the USGS, based in Golden, Colo., blamed the tidal waves on the quake.

"This is not unusual occurrence for an earthquake this size and where it's located," said geophysicist Julie Martinez.

Martinez said the quake was the world's fifth-largest since 1900 and the largest since a 9.2 quake hit Prince William Sound Alaska in 1964.

At least 94 people were killed in Indonesia's Aceh province, hospital and local officials said.

Bireun district head Mustofa Glanggang told The Associated Press that 50 people were killed in Bireun district, and 35 bodies were brought to Cut Meutia Hospital in the northern city of Lhokseumawe, an official there said. Nine others were killed in the provincial capital Banda Aceh, witnesses told a local radio station.

Communications were down in several coastal towns facing the epicenter of the undersea quake off the western coast of Aceh, raising fears of widespread and as yet unreported damage in the region.

"The ground was shaking for a long time," resident Yayan Zamzani told Jakarta's el-Shinta radio station. "It must be the strongest earthquake in the last 15 years."

Sixty-one people died and many were missing in popular southern Thailand resorts, the Narenthorn Center of the Public Health Ministry reported. The center also reported that people were swept away in Phuket by a tsunami with waves surging as high as 16 feet.

The Bangladesh Meteorological Department said a powerful earthquake jolted a wide area of that country early Sunday, but there were no immediate reports of casualties or damage. The quake was reported to be a magnitude-7.3.

Police in Malaysia said seven people were killed in tidal waves.

Indonesia, a country of 17,000 islands, is prone to seismic upheaval because of its location on the margins of tectonic plates that make up the so-called the "Ring of Fire" around the Pacific Ocean basin.

The Indonesian quake struck just three days after an 8.1 quake struck the ocean floor between Australia and Antarctica, causing buildings to shake hundreds of miles away but no serious damage or injury.

Quakes reaching a magnitude 8 are very rare. A quake registering magnitude 8 rocked Japan's northern island of Hokkaido on Sept. 25, 2003, injuring nearly 600 people. An 8.4 magnitude tremor that stuck off the coast of Peru on June 23, 2001, killed 74.

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