Small tsunami causes Pacific islanders to flee

Three strong earthquakes rock the region and generate a small tsunami, just over a week after a massive wave killed 178 people in the Samoas and Tonga.

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WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND // Thousands of panicked South Pacific islanders raced away from the coastline after three strong earthquakes rocked the region and generated a small tsunami today, just over a week after a massive wave killed 178 people in the Samoas and Tonga. There were no immediate reports of damage, and all tsunami warnings and watches were soon cancelled. But people across the South Pacific took no chances, scrambling up hillsides and manoeuvring through traffic-clogged streets to reach higher ground.

"There is panic here, too," Chris McKee, assistant director of the Geophysical Observatory in the Papua New Guinea capital, Port Moresby, said. "Offices have closed. People have rushed out onto the streets and are climbing hills. A lot of places have shut down ... We tried to put the dampeners on it, but it was already out of hand." The Hawaii-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued a regional tsunami warning for 11 nations and territories after a quake with a magnitude of 7.8 struck 294 kilometres north-west of the Vanuatu island of Santo at a depth of 35 kilometres.

Two other quakes of magnitude 7.7 and 7.3 followed in the same area. The centre cancelled the tsunami warnings after sea-level readings indicated that the wave generated by the quakes was too small to cause much damage. There were no immediate reports of injury or damage from officials in Vanuatu, a chain of 83 islands. It lies about 2,200 kilometres north-east of Sydney, Australia. "We felt the quake - it shook the ground, but not very strongly," said a police officer in the town of Luganville on the island of Santo, the Vanuatu island nearest to the quakes' epicentre.

"We haven't received any reports of damage or injuries from the quakes or tsunami," he said, adding they were still waiting for reports from other small islands nearby. *AP