SYDNEY (REUTERS, AFP) - A major earthquake with a magnitude of 7.3 was recorded off the Moluccas in Indonesia on Saturday, the national disaster mitigation agency said, causing residents near the quake to flee their homes after a tsunami warning was issued.
The quake was felt strongly on the Sitaro islands, where authorities also warned people to stay away from beaches and riverbanks, Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, a spokesman at Indonesian agency, said in a statement.
"It was strong," said Regina Saerang, an eyewitness in Manado. "I felt it for about a minute. There was no damage but people on my street are pouring out of our houses." The head of the disaster mitigation agency had ordered the preparation of aircraft and logistics in case they were needed and further checks of the affected areas were being made, Mr Nugroho said.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii said hazardous tsunamis were possible within 300km of the quake's epicentre. But there were no reports of casualties or major damage from the quake measured at a depth of 47km, with the epicentre 134km north-west of Ternate.
The centre said tsunami waves could hit parts of Indonesia, as well the Philippines, Japan, Taiwan and islands in the South Pacific. "We have issued an early tsunami warning," an official from Indonesia's meteorological agency told AFP.
The first waves could reach land within 30 minutes and the last within about six hours. "The initial wave may not be the largest," the centre warned. However, Malaysian, Thai and Sri Lankan disaster agencies all soon said they would not be impacted by the quake but would continue to monitor the situation.
People in the northern Maluku Islands and in the north of central Sulawesi island were in particular being asked to stay away from the coast, added Mochammad Riyadi, head of the earthquake and tsunami department at Indonesia's weather agency.
On the tiny Sangihe Islands close to the epicentre in Indonesia, people ran out of their homes when the quake hit, Toni Supit, head of the islands' Sitaro district, told AFP. "People in coastal areas felt the strong quake, which lasted for quite some time, and they immediately went to the sea to see if the water was receding abnormally, which is a sign of an incoming tsunami," he said.
Life was returning to normal after the initial shock and people were returning to their homes, he said, but added that local authorities were encouraging people to stay away from beaches until the tsunami warning was lifted.
Julius Galgiano, Philippine government seismologist, said the Philippines had also issued a tsunami warning.
"We are telling (local communities) to have a tsunami watch in areas along the coast," he said. But added that no evacuation orders had been issued and the tsunami waves were not expected to be high.
Indonesia sits on the Pacific "Ring of Fire" where continental plates collide, causing frequent seismic and volcanic activity.
A huge undersea quake in 2004 triggered a tsunami that killed more than 170,000 people in Aceh province, on western Sumatra island, and tens of thousands more in other countries with coasts on the Indian Ocean.
A 6.1-magnitude quake that hit inland in Aceh in July last year left at least 30 people dead and thousands homeless. It caused a mosque to collapse in one village, killing six children as they took part in a Koran reading session.