Ruslan Sangaji, The Jakarta Post, Palu, Central Sulawesi | Tue, 11/18/2008 12:36 PM
A powerful 7.5-magnitude earthquake struck off northern Sulawesi early Monday, killing at least four people, destroying thousands of homes and forcing thousands of residents to flee.
The quake triggered a tsunami warning from U.S. officials for an area within 1,000 kilometers of the epicenter, but a similar alert by Indonesian authorities was withdrawn shortly after being issued, AFP reported.
Indonesian crisis center official Rustam Pakaya said a 56-year-old man was killed and 23 people were injured in Kwandang village, Gorontalo province.
In the neighboring province of Central Sulawesi, Governor H.B. Paliuju said one person had been killed, two injured and hundreds of homes destroyed.
"The victim was killed by a collapsing wall," Paliuju told reporters.
More than 700 homes were flattened in Buol regency, 600 kilometers north of the Central Sulawesi capital of Palu, and another 500 damaged.
The governor said communication links with Buol had been cut during the quake and information was sketchy. "We are still waiting for an updated report from officials there," he said.
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) said the earthquake struck 136 kilometers off the coastal town of Gorontalo at a depth of 21 kilometers.
Thousands of people in several villages across Gorontalo province fled their homes for higher ground over fears of a tsunami, Antara news agency reported.
The sea level rose briefly in some areas but no large waves were detected, it added.
The Hawaii-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Center warned the quake had the potential to spawn a destructive regional tsunami and advised authorities in the region to "take immediate action to evacuate coastal areas".
The USGS also reported two powerful aftershocks. An official earlier told AFP that residents of Tolitoli, 250 kilometers away, had also reported collapsed buildings.
"In an earthquake like this, I think it's likely there will be victims," Indonesian geological official Sutiono said.
Indonesia was the country worst hit by the earthquake-triggered tsunami in December 2004 that killed more than 200,000 people in 11 nations across Asia, with more than 168,000 killed in Aceh province alone.
The Indonesian archipelago straddles several continental plates in an area known as the Pacific Ring of Fire, where seismic and volcanic activity is recorded on an almost daily basis.
Monday's quake comes less than a week after Indonesia launched a high-tech tsunami early warning system in a bid to prevent a repeat of the 2004 disaster.
The Rp 1.4 trillion (US$130.2 million) system is meant to be able to detect an earthquake at sea and predict within five minutes whether it could cause a tsunami.
The system, built with German technology and funding from a number of foreign nations, will eventually include 23 or 24 buoys linked by cables to detectors on the ocean floor.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said at system's launch Tuesday that Indonesia was "living on the edge".
"Three tectonic plates -- the Eurasian, Indo-Australian and Pacific -- meet here," Yudhoyono said.
"This kind of disaster can strike at any time."