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New Quakes Cause Panic In S. Asia

Two magnitude-6.3 earthquakes in southern Asia struck eight hours apart Monday, causing panic but little damage in a region still traumatized by last month's quake-triggered tsunami that killed tens of thousands.

A pre-dawn quake centered under Indonesia's Sulawesi island — far to the east of where the much more powerful magnitude-9.0 temblor struck on Dec. 26 — sent thousands of people running to higher ground in the city of Palu.

The epicenter of the earthquake was on land — unlike last month's quake — and caused no tsunami. About 30 wooden houses and some shops were damaged, police said.

"They were shouting 'water, water' because they feared waves," said Dr. Riri Lamadjido, a physician at the city's main Undata Hospital, which received no injured patients as a result of the quake.

Later Monday, panic briefly spread through the streets of the Indian coastal city of Madras after residents felt an earthquake centered in the Bay of Bengal, near the Andaman Islands.

Police said no damage or injuries were reported, but people could be seen running in the city after it was jolted.

Samuel Cherian, the senior police officer in Campbell Bay, the southernmost island in the Andaman archipelago, said: "I was sitting in my office upstairs this morning at 10:45 when I felt a sudden jolt. My sentry downstairs also felt it. But there is no damage to property or life."

The 6.3-magnitude quake hit near the islands, seismologists at the Hong Kong Observatory said. The epicenter was about 1,080 miles southeast of Calcutta.

The U.S. Geological Survey reported that the earlier quake in Sulawesi, also registered a magnitude of 6.3.

Further reflecting the jitters in the region less than a month after the disaster, thousands of people in western Thailand fled their homes early Monday after rumors spread that an earthquake had cracked four major dams, which and were about to burst.

The governor of Kanchanaburi province — which was not hit by the Dec. 26 tsunami — went on the radio and the head of the government agency in charge of dams held a news conference to try to reassure people that the rumors were false and urge them to return home.

The Dec. 26 quake off Indonesia's western Sumatra island triggering waves that killed anywhere from 162,000 to 228,000 people in 11 countries around the Indian Ocean.

Meanwhile, U.N. officials said the number of relief camps in Indonesia's Aceh province has dropped by about 75 percent in the past week.

The "dramatic decrease" in the camps — from 385 to less than 100 — was good news because relief settlements can cause survivors to become too dependent on outside help, said Joel Boutroue, head of U.N. relief efforts in Aceh.

Most people were moving in with relatives, and a few were returning to their villages along the devastated west coast, he said.

To smooth the delivery of aid to hundreds of thousands of survivors, governments in the two worst-hit nations of Indonesia and Sri Lanka were trying on Monday to ease tensions with indigenous rebel movements that threatened to hold up supplies.

Indonesian officials agreed to meet with Aceh rebel leaders later this week in Finland to negotiate a cease-fire in the province, where separatists have been fighting for an independent homeland for nearly 30 years, according to Finland's Crisis Management Initiative, headed by former President Martti Ahtisaari.

Despite an informal cease-fire announced by both sides since the disaster, there have been isolated reports of fighting, raising concerns about the security of relief operations in Aceh. On Sunday, the Indonesian military said it had killed 200 alleged rebels in the last four weeks.

In Sri Lanka, Norway's foreign minister met separately with the country's prime minister and a top guerrilla leader over the weekend to help resolve a dispute over aid distribution on the island nation, where the tsunami killed about 31,000 people and displaced another 1 million.

The Tamil Tigers have repeatedly accused the government of obstructing aid deliveries to rebel-controlled areas in Sri Lanka's north and east — allegations the government denies.

At Norway's urging, the two sides agreed to discuss the creation of a joint body that would ensure relief is fairly disbursed. If they do agree to such cooperation, it would represent serious progress in a conflict that has lingered for two decades.

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