Indonesian quake sends locals running for the hills

An earthquake measuring 6.2 magnitude under the Indonesia island of Sulawesi sent panic among residents who fled to higher ground.

The earthquake, which was a long way from the Boxing Day tsunami earthquake epicentre of Aceh, nevertheless spread fear among residents that a similar giant wave could strike the region.

A resident of Palu, on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, walks past a damaged road
A damaged road on the island of Sulawesi

Thousands of people ran to the hills in the city of Palu after the pre-dawn tremors, including patients in the main Undata hospital.

About 30 wooden homes were damaged, police said.

"They were shouting 'water, water' because they feared waves," said Dr Riri Lamadjido at the hospital.

The earthquake comes as the government and Aceh's separatist rebels prepared to suspend a decades-long civil war in the interest of helping rebuild the tsunami-shattered province.

The Boxing Day tsunami, which saw a 9.0 underwater earthquake registered under Indonesia's western Sumatra, killed 234,000 people, latest figures show.

A month after the disaster, people remain anxious and nervous even in areas not directly affected.

In an inland province west of Thailand's capital, thousands fled their homes early Monday after rumours spread that a new earthquake had opened cracks in four major hydroelectric dams that were about to break open and flood the region.

To smooth the delivery of aid to hundreds of thousands of tsunami survivors, governments in the two worst-hit nations of Indonesia and Sri Lanka were trying on Monday to ease tensions with indigenous rebel movements that threaten to hold up supplies.

Indonesian officials agreed to meet with Aceh rebel leaders later this week in Finland to negotiate a cease-fire in the province, where separatists have been fighting for an independent homeland for nearly 30 years, Finland's Crisis Management Initiative, headed by former President Martti Ahtisaari, said.

Despite an informal cease-fire announced by both sides since the disaster, there have been isolated reports of fighting, raising concerns about the security of relief operations in Aceh.

In Sri Lanka, Norway's foreign minister met separately with the country's prime minister and a top rebel leader over the weekend to help resolve a dispute over aid distribution in the island nation.

The Tamil Tigers have repeatedly accused the government of obstructing aid deliveries to rebel-controlled areas in Sri Lanka's north and east - allegations the government denies.

At Norway's urging, the two sides agreed to discuss the creation of a joint body that would ensure relief is fairly disbursed.

As American forces began pulling back its relief work, Japan was stepping in with about 1,000 troops dispatched to Aceh. The deployment is Tokyo's largest-ever overseas military relief effort.

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