BENGKULU, Indonesia, Sep 13 (Reuters) Indonesia's Sumatra island was hit by a series of aftershocks today after a powerful earthquake toppled hundreds of buildings, killing atleast 10 people and burying many others.
A seismologist said the region was lucky to have escaped a tsunami similar to the one triggered by the more than 9 magnitude quake in 2004 that killed over 280,000 people.
But the threat remained. Indonesia's meteorology agency issued the latest in a series of tsunami warnings late today after another strong earthquake struck Sumatra.
The damage from the initial quake was ''relatively less'' than feared, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono told reporters today.
''However, we still have to do a thorough assessment. People are better at responding to disasters than in previous years.'' yesterday's 8.4 magnitude quake -- which took place on the eve of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, and was felt in neighbouring Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand -- cut communications and sparked panic in the hours that followed.
That quake and more than 20 further tremors ranging in intensity from 4.9 to 7.8 repeatedly set off tsunami warnings in Indian Ocean countries. However there were no reports of major ocean surges hitting coastlines.
''There was a tsunami created by the earthquake, it just travelled in a southwest direction away from land,'' said Mike Turnbull at Central Queensland University.
A separate 6.4 tremor was also reported off Sulawesi island, to the east of Sumatra.
''We are grateful for the fact that the situation wasn't as bad as we initially thought it would be,'' said Muhammad Syamlan, vice governor of Bengkulu province, whose capital Bengkulu was close to the epicentre of the quake.
A Reuters photographer in Bengkulu's provincial capital said the situation appeared calm, with shops re-opening and people milling around. The province, one of Indonesia's key coffee-growing regions, has a population of about 1.57 million.
LIVING IN FEAR The roads in north Bengkulu were lined with tents as residents feared more quakes and did not want to return to their damaged homes. People huddled by fires outdoors to keep warm in the drizzling rain.
''When the first quake struck, we ran out of our house. Then we returned to the house to sleep but another big quake hit, so we ran out again. Since then we have been afraid,'' said Erfan Riyanto, a driver.
Rustam Pakaya, head of the Indonesian health ministry's crisis centre in Jakarta, said 10 people had been killed and 51 injured across the region.
''The North Bengkulu area has been identified as the worst hit, with half the area destroyed,'' he said.
In Bengkulu, nearly 800 houses collapsed and many more were damaged, but the full extent of the quake was still unknown because of the difficulty of reaching or contacting some areas.
The mayor of Padang, the capital of West Sumatra, told Reuters many people were trapped under collapsed buildings.
Indonesia suffers frequent quakes, as it lies on an active seismic belt on the so-called Pacific ''Ring of Fire''.
REUTERS RAR AS2300