Thousands feared dead after huge Asian quake
More than 2,000 people were feared killed and hundreds more were missing feared dead today after a huge earthquake off northern Indonesia triggered giant tidal waves and flash floods across western Asia.
The quake, one of the largest in history and measuring 8.9 on the Richter scale, struck in the Indian ocean south-west of Aceh province on Sumatra island and unleashed massive destruction throughout the region.
South Asia was the worst hit region, with at least 2,000 deaths reported by Sri Lanka and India.
The Sri Lankan Government declared a state of disaster as at least 1,000 people were killed after huge waves battered the country's eastern and southern coastlines, swamping entire villages.
Sri Lanka's President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who is in London, was expected to cut short her holiday and return home, a spokesman for her office said, adding she was also appealing for international help.
Indian Home Minister Shivraj Patil told the Press Trust of India around 1,000 people were dead in south India.
In Indonesia, government officials said at least 150 had been killed but warned they expected the death toll to rise substantially.
Popular resorts crowded with Christmas revellers in Thailand and Malaysia were also devastated by tsunamis.
At least 99 people were killed and more than 1,300 were wounded in southern Thailand, with many of the deaths occurring in the idyllic tourist islands of Phuket and Phi Phi.
A police officer in Phuket said at least six of the dead were foreigners who drowned on Karon beach on the island's west coast.
The death toll was likely to rise with several officials reporting over Thai radio and television that beachgoers and villagers had gone missing.
Police said 31 people had died in nearby Krabi on Thailand's southern mainland, at least 11 were killed on tiny Phi Phi.
In Malaysia, six people drowned and several others were missing after being swept away by a tidal wave in the north-western resort island of Penang, a popular destination with foreign tourists, police and rescue officials said.
The victims were swimming off the popular Batu Ferringhi beach when the wave hit, a police spokesman told AFP on condition of anonymity.
He said five bodies had been recovered and identified as Malaysians.
The Indian Ocean tourist paradise of the Maldives was hit by tidal waves, inundating low-lying islands, but there were no immediate reports of casualties, officials said.
Residents of the Maldivian capital, Male, contacted by telephone, said most of the capital was flooded.
Indonesian authorities said they expected the death toll to rise as villagers scoured the coast for others missing since waves measuring up to 10 metres swept along northern Aceh province.
"According to villagers whom I talked to, the waves were up to 10 meters in height," Mustofa Gelanggang, the head of Aceh's Bireuen district told AFP.
"The wave swept all settlements on the coast, and most houses, on stilts and made of wood, were either swept away or destroyed.
"Some areas were under between two and three meters of water for about two hours," he said.
Aceh, a region currently closed off to foreign media and aid agencies due to a long-running separatist conflict, saw unconfirmed reports of casualties, with buildings including a mosque and a hotel collapsing.
A reporter from the private ElShinta radio said that the earthquake caused substantial damage in the provincial capital Banda Aceh, including the partial collapse of Kuala Tripa hotel and several shops as well as cracks on the road.
Reports differed on the the exact location and size of the quake.
The US Geological Survey National Earthquake Information Centre initially put the tremor at 8.5 but revised it upwards to 8.9, while the Strasbourg Observatory in France said the tremor hit 8.0 and was located north of Sumatra.
Jakarta's Meteorology and Geophysics Office put the quake at 6.8 saying it was centred in the Indian Ocean some 149 kilometre south of Meulaboh, a town on the western coast of Aceh.
The tremors were felt as far away as the Thai capital Bangkok, some 1,500 kilometres north of the epicentre, where buildings swayed but no serious damage was reported.
Guests of a high-rise hotel reported chandeliers swinging, according to a manager of the city's Conrad Hotel, while the Charoen Krung Pracha Rak Hospital evacuated all 400 of its patients as a precaution.
Indonesia, an archipelago of more than 18,000 islands, lies on the Pacific ring of fire noted for its volcanic and seismic activity, and is one of the world's most earthquake-prone regions.
Lying at the collision point of three tectonic plates results in frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions as pressure between the massive segments of the earth's crust is released.