MAPUTO, Feb 23 (Reuters) A strong earthquake rocked northern Mozambique today, killing at least two people and sending frightened residents into the streets across southern Africa as aftershocks rolled through the region.
The earthquake, which news reports said was the largest to hit the area in more than 100 years, was felt as far south as Johannesburg and Durban in South Africa.
Mozambique's mines minister said one person was killed and at least 18 others injured when the quake struck just after midnight about 160 km southwest of Mozambique's northern port of Beira.
Radio Mozambique reported that another person died, apparently of a heart attack, at a local hospital as the quake hit. The US Geological Survey (USGS) reported at least three significant aftershocks during the night.
Police in Beira denied persistent rumours that a building had collapsed in the city, although local journalists said at least one house had fallen down in the rural district where the quake was centred.
Governor Raimundo Diomba of Manica province said officials were fanning out into the countryside to assess damage, but communications were difficult.
''We have no human or material damage to report yet, we sent teams to make a detailed evaluation of the situation,'' he said.
Minister of Mineral Resources Esperanza Bias, speaking to reporters after a cabinet meeting convened to discuss the earthquake, said one person died and 13 were injured in largely rural Manica. Four more were injured in Beira, she said.
Bias said the government had asked emergency officials to quickly draw up plans to deal with future quakes.
''Earthquakes are not a part of our disaster management plan,'' she said.
South African petrochemicals company Sasol said the quake was felt at its natural gas fields in Mozambique but production had not been disrupted and no damage had been found.
''We are checking that everything is in order but early indications are that there was absolutely no damage,'' said Sasol spokesman Johann van Rheede.
FELT IN SOUTH AFRICA In Durban, South Africa, witnesses described people running into the streets. Similar scenes occurred in Maputo, where many people spent the night in the open, and more than 1,000 km to the north in Zimbabwe's capital Harare, where people fled their apartments after the tremors began.
In the Zimbabwean city of Mutare, about 270 km west of Harare close to the Mozambique border, residents said the quake jolted houses and apartment buildings but did not appear to have caused widespread damage.
''It sounded like an explosion, but I haven't heard of any casualties,'' said a local journalist contacted by telephone.
Mutare, a city of about one million in Zimbabwe's mountainous Eastern Highlands, is where President Robert Mugabe is due to hold a major celebration on Saturday to mark his 82nd birthday.
In the tiny kingdom of Swaziland, sandwiched between Mozambique and South Africa, people also ran into the open after the quake hit, witnesses said.
USGS experts said the region could expect more tremors.
''An earthquake of this size shakes the ground for quite a distance away from its epicentre so we're expecting that there is damage from this earthquake,'' said William Leith, a USGS earthquake specialist.
''It's a significant and unexpected earthquake in this region,'' he said by telephone from the USGS headquarters in Reston, Virginia. ''We'll expect aftershocks from an earthquake this large.'' REUTERS SHR HS1855