CHITTAGONG, Bangladesh (AFP) — Hundreds of thousands of people in southern Bangladesh fled their homes in panic fearing a tsunami after a major earthquake off Indonesia, officials said on Wednesday.
Local officials said some 600,000 people rushed from coastal regions of the disaster-prone country following a government tsunami warning.
Police with loud-hailers raised the alarm after the 8.4-magnitude earthquake hundreds of miles (kilometres) south in the Indian Ocean.
"Around half-a-million have left their homes. They've taken shelter in schools, colleges, cyclone shelters and relatives' houses," said Chittagong district administrator Ashraf Shamim.
"There's a panic but we're using loudspeakers to ask people to take shelter in safe places."
An urgent government warning that a tsunami could hit after midnight was repeated frequently by both state and private television and radio stations. It was finally cancelled at 1:30 am Thursday (1930 GMT).
Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and India also issued tsunami alerts but cancelled them hours earlier as the threat of giant waves receded.
"We started using loud-hailers at 8:00 pm (1400 GMT) after the government's order," said Mahbubur Rahman, police chief of the southern island of Sandweep.
"So far some 70,000 people have been evacuated to cyclone shelters, colleges, schools and government administrative buildings.
"They have left their homes and are huddled together at the centers."
The US Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre issued an alert for the entire Indian Ocean area including Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and the Maldives -- all affected by the devastating December 2004 Asian tsunami.
But the centre said later that the danger had passed.
Bangladesh, a frequent victim of flooding and ferry disasters, escaped the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami which killed 220,000 people in a dozen countries after another massive earthquake off Indonesia's Sumatra island.
But officials, unwilling to take chances, opened disaster control rooms in the capital and the districts to coordinate the evacuation after Wednesday's quake.
"The district administrations in the coastal areas have been ordered to open temporary shelters so that people can stay the night there," said government press spokesman Mahbub Kabir.
Tens of thousands were ordered to take shelter in the southern district of Cox's Bazar, while ships were ordered to stay close to harbour in Chittagong, home of the country's largest port.
"It's massive work. But we are going to take all the people to safe places," said Chittagong official Shamim.
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