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Panic Sweeps India, Sri Lanka Following New Tsunami Warnings


In India and Sri Lanka, panic swept regions struck by the tsunami disaster after the Indian government warned that fresh tsunamis might strike. It is not clear why the warning was issued.

Thousands of people fled coastal settlements in India and Sri Lanka Thursday following an alert by the Indian government that high waves might strike the region.

The warnings sparked massive panic and confusion in coastal villages and towns. Petrified people ran on foot, by buses and any other mode of transport they could find, many yelling "the waves are coming." In some areas fleeing crowds were joined by local aid workers and policemen.

A resident of India's remote Andaman and Nicobar Islands related the scene in the town of Port Blair to reporters.

"I saw people in thousands coming out of the offices, coming out of shops, running with the cars, the cars were taking U-turns, and there were people running helter-skelter to higher ground," he said.

India's decision to evacuate villages within two kilometers of the coast prompted local authorities in Sri Lanka to urge its people to be alert. That triggered scenes like those in India: many Sri Lankans climbed roofs, others stuffed their most valuable possessions into plastic bags and fled, locals jumped off a naval ship ferrying aid.

A measure of calm was restored by late afternoon after the Indian government repeatedly stated on television that it had issued the alerts only as a "precautionary measure." But there was widespread confusion about what exactly had prompted the authorities to put out the warnings in the first place.

Indian Home Minister Shivraj Patil justified the alerts, saying they were made following reports from overseas experts that an earthquake might strike, creating a "tsunami-type effect."

Mr. Patil says the government is merely being cautious and there should be no panic. but "we would err on the safer side."

But hours later, India's Science and Technology minister, Kapil Sibal, told reporters it was impossible to predict an earthquake. He appealed to relief agencies to carry on with their work.

"We request all the relief agencies at this moment helping our people, to continue their relief work for they are not in danger," said Kapil Sibal. "It is not in the national interest that any agency should create any panic."

Observers say Thursday's alerts may have been sparked by the Indian government's desire to be ultra cautious, especially in the wake of some media reports that the bureaucracy had bungled the handling of Sunday's tsunami, losing precious time and costing lives.

The Indian Express newspaper said that well before the giant waves hit the mainland coast on Sunday, India's air force was warned that a remote base on the Nicobar Islands, hundreds of kilometers out to sea, had been flooded. But the authorities did not react before many lives were lost, according to the newspaper.

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