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Thousands Dead In Southeast Asian Earthquake

26 December 2004 -- A powerful earthquake triggered massive tidal waves that slammed into coastlines across Asia today, killing more than 6,000 people in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India, Malaysia, and Thailand.

The epicenter of the massive earthquake was reported to be 1,600 kilometers northwest of Jakarta, and some 40 kilometers beneath the seabed.

The U.S. Geological Survey said quake's magnitude was 8.9, making it the most powerful earthquake since 1964, when a 9.2-magnitude quake was recorded in Alaska.

The earthquake set off a series of massive tidal waves that spread out in all directions, smashing onto coastlines throughout South Asia.

More than 2,000 people were reported killed in India as the tsunami waves flooded the country's southeastern coast. Hundreds of bodies were found on various beaches, and officials said more were expected to be washed in by the sea.

Sounder Rajan, a fisherman in the Indian city of Madras, described the impact of the tidal wave: "After the earthquake, we were sitting at home, and suddenly a big wave came. It was so big that people who were near the sea had no chance of survival. It came with a big force. Many children who were playing were killed. A lot of old people have died. Around 10 children who were playing at the beach are missing."

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh put the Indian armed forces on alert as rescue workers began searching for hundreds of people lost in the tsunami. In a news conference, Singh expressed deep sorrow at the loss of life and pledged assistance to the local leaders of the regions devastated by the tidal waves.

"My heart goes out to the families who lost their dear ones due to this tragedy. Since early morning, I have been in touch with the governments of the affected states. I have spoken to the chief ministers of these states, and I have assured them of the fullest possible support and cooperation," Singh said.

In Sri Lanka -- some 1,600 kilometers west of the epicenter -- officials have put the death toll at 2,200, after flash floods rushed through coastal areas.

A restaurant owner, Olwin Perera, in the capital, Colombo, described the scene: "My boys have seen the sea level come up, but it was not rough. They say it was calm as now and six feet in height. It came in and everything got washed away. [Reporter asks: 'One wave?'] Not much of a wave -- that's the funniest thing. The level of water came in about six feet higher than what it is now."

Heavy damage was also reported in the Indonesian province of Aceh on northern Sumatra -- the land closest to the epicenter. Nearly 2,000 people died as towns nearest the hub of the earthquake were destroyed by tidal waves, leaving bodies wedged in trees as the waters receded. Officials warned the death toll may rise dramatically.

Deaths were also reported in Malaysia and in Thailand, whose southern islands are a popular holiday destination for hundreds of thousands of tourists.

Officials reported one wave up to 10 meters high striking hotel-lined beaches in the popular Thai resort town of Phuket.

The effects of the earthquake were felt at unusually large distances from the epicenter. Buildings were seen swaying as far away as Singapore, northern Thailand, and Bangladesh.

Throughout the region, rescue workers are struggling against flood waters to find and evacuate stranded victims.

(compiled from wire reports)