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Tsunami alert after quakes turns out to be a false alarm

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre issued then dropped a warning for some 25 South Pacific countries after three massive earthquakes struck the coastline off Vanuatu. The resulting tidal wave was only 3 to 10 centimetres high.

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AFP - Three massive earthquakes triggered a tsunami alert over much of the South Pacific on Thursday, sending panicked residents fleeing to higher ground just days after giant waves killed 184 in the region.

Authorities on remote islands evacuated thousands of people from coastal areas, sounding sirens and emptying schools and offices, after the triple 7.8, 7.7 and 7.3 quakes struck in seas off Vanuatu from 9:03 am (2203 GMT).

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued a tsunami warning for some 25 countries and territories stretching as far as Australia, New Zealand and Indonesia.

But the quakes generated only a small tsunami, with waves of between three and 10 centimeters (one to four inches) recorded by tsunami gauges, and experts said serious damage was unlikely.

"A tsunami was generated but it looks like it was not damaging," Brian Yanagi of the International Tsunami Information Centre in Hawaii told AFP.

The fresh warning caused terror in Samoa, just eight days after a wall of water churned up by an 8.0-magnitude earthquake obliterated entire villages and killed 143 people plus 32 in American Samoa and nine in Tonga.

Thousands of Samoans fled from the ocean, where debris from last week's disaster still litters the shore, causing traffic jams in populated areas, witnesses and reports said.

The alert also comes after last week's catastrophic 7.6-magnitude earthquake in Indonesia's Sumatra island which is feared to have killed 3,000 people. Just minutes before the Pacific tremors, a strong 6.7 quake hit the Philippines.

Witnesses described scenes of panic in Vanuatu as residents and tourists reported seeing big waves and rushed away from the coast.

"People are hysterical, trying to find out what's going on and contacting family members. Phone lines are going down as a result," an official with aid group CARE Australia said.

The capital shut down as workers fled and hotels cleared tourists off the beaches, a resort official said.

"Shops and offices in the city have been closed and workers have run to higher ground in case of a tsunami," said Arjun Channa, general manager of the luxury Le Meridien resort in Port Vila.

"At the hotel, all guests have been cleared off the beaches and we are contacting all cruises to stop those and get the passengers to safer areas, just in case," he told AFP.

Shane Coleman, consular officer at the New Zealand High Commission at Port Vila in Vanuatu, said the tremors did not seem to cause any damage and so far there was no sign of a tsunami.

"It was a long and lazy quake," he said.

In Fiji, police and troops stopped people entering the city centre, while officials ordered hotels to take tourists inland.

New Caledonia officials sounded warning sirens and ordered people away from the coast on the main island and eastern Loyalty Islands, while the low-lying atoll nation of Tuvalu also hurried residents away from the shores.

"We are trying to get those people staying closer to the coast to move inland," said Tuvalu's acting police commissioner Titelu Kauani.

New Zealand was put on "tsunami watch" while Australia said it would be protected from any big waves by the enormous Great Barrier Reef.

"The reef pretty much kills this tsunami," said Geoff Doueal, a forecaster from Australia's weather bureau.

Experts said the "Pacific Ring of Fire" -- where the meeting of tectonic plates causes frequent seismic activity -- had been especially volatile in recent days.

"This is a very active area -- and it's been very active over the last week-and-a-half," Dale Grant of the USGS told Sky News.
 

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