Quakes Rock Region as Pacific Tests Tsunami Alert System

Scientists at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre in Hawaii

The exercise, code-named Pacific Wave '06, was declared a success by officials at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre in Hawaii, who said the earthquakes had not disrupted the test.

"If those events were large enough to cause a tsunami warning to be issued then we would have terminated the test at that point," duty geophysicist Stuart Koyanagi told AFP.

A magnitude 7.4 earthquake struck off the coast of New Zealand's Kermadec Islands late Tuesday, just hours before the test began, the US Geological Survey reported.

A 6.8 magnitude earthquake then struck near Indonesia's Nias island at 1528 GMT Tuesday causing mass panic among residents but no damage and two temblors of magnitude 5.8 and 6.0 struck Tonga after the exercise began at 1900 GMT with a mock 9.2 quake off Chile, the USGS said.

The warning centre in Hawaii, which launched the test exercise for more than 30 countries, said none of the earthquakes triggered genuine Pacific-wide tsunami warnings, but the two biggest could cause small local tsunamis.

There were no immediate reports of casualties or damage from the earthquake zones.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning System (PTWS) test was part of an effort to strengthen defences following the December 26, 2004 killer waves that swept across countries in the northern Indian Ocean, killing around 220,000 people.

The exercise began with a mock alert about the quake off the coast of Chile, which theoretically sparked a tsunami across the eastern Pacific. The second phase of the test involved a fake quake north of the Philippines.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning System has been in existence for more than 40 years, but exercises have until now only been conducted at national or local level.

The PTWS comes under the aegis of UNESCO's Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, which last year also set down the foundations for a tsunami early warning system in the Indian Ocean.

Typhoon Chanchu churned its way towards Hong Kong and southern China, causing the cancellation of some flights and ferry services (AFP Photo)

180,000 evacuated in southern China as Typhoon Chanchu nears

More than 180,000 people were evacuated from coastal areas of southern China Wednesday as Typhoon Chanchu, the strongest storm to hit the region at this time of year, churned towards the mainland and Hong Kong.

The evacuees, all from Guangdong province, were relocated to safe shelters while the province also recalled more than 25,000 ships at sea, China's offical Xinhua news agency quoted the provincial disaster relief office as saying.

In Hong Kong 26 flights have been cancelled, most of which were heading for mainland China. Eight international flights were delayed. Many ferry services were suspended and beaches closed.

The typhoon, which killed 41 people and left thousands homeless when it tore through the Philippines Saturday, is the strongest on record to have entered the South China Sea in May, the Hong Kong Observatory said.

 At 8:00 am (2400 GMT) Wednesday, the storm was located 440 kilometers (273 miles) south of the Guangdong city of Shanwei.

The Guangzhou Meteorological Station forecast the typhoon may land in coastal regions between Shenzhen and Raoping counties Wednesday afternoon or Thursday morning, according to the China Daily newspaper.

Smoke churning Mount Merapi, in Tuntggularum, Yogyakarta of central Java, 17 May 2006 (AFP Photo)

Indonesia volcano vigil continues

Searing heat clouds belched out of Indonesian volcano early on Wednesday as scientists anxiously waited for a feared eruption that has forced thousands of villagers from their homes.

Despite apparently reduced activity at Mount Merapi, which produced a major cloud of gas and ash on Monday, experts warned that the volcano remained highly dangerous.

"Presently the eruption process of Merapi is still continuing," said Triyani from the vulcanology office in nearby Yogyakarta.

A thin stream of smoke curled from the peak after the four heat clouds shot out from midnight to 6:00 am (1700 to 2300 GMT Tuesday), reaching up to 3.5 kilometres (about two miles) down the mountain's slopes.

More than 22,000 residents evacuated from the immediate danger zone waited in camps or returned to their homes tracked by authorities, official data showed.

Scientists said on Tuesday that the new lava dome forming at the peak of Merapi -- which means "Mountain of Fire" -- contained some 2.3 million cubic metres of lava with an additional 150,000 cubic metres being added daily.

The main fear is that the dome, which is leaning southward, may collapse and shoot out blazing lava as well as more deadly heat clouds, rather than explode.

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