Powerful 7.8 magnitude earthquake strikes Indonesia

A shallow but powerful earthquake has struck off Indonesia's Sumatra island, sending panicked residents rushing from their homes.

The US Geological Survey said the magnitude 7.8 earthquake's epicentre was 808 kilometres south-west of Padang, West Sumatra, and 24 kilometres deep.

Earlier, Reuters was quoting the deputy chief of Indonesia's search and rescue agency as saying there are fatalities as a result of the initial earthquake.

"There are some who have died," said Heronimus Guru, the deputy head of operations with the National Search and Rescue Agency. He did not know how many, but any rescue operation will be hampered by the dark, which falls early in the tropical archipelago.

Authorities said a tsunami was unlikely, though National Disaster Management Agency chief Bambang Sulistyo said he still could not contact its office in the Mentawai Islands.

Disaster agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said tsunami warning sirens were activated and "people responded to the early warning by evacuating to higher places", but based on their analysis, "the potential for a tsunami is low".

Australia cancelled earlier tsunami watch warning for parts of Western Australia, Christmas Island and Cocos Island.

A massive magnitude 9.1 quake off Indonesia in 2004 triggered a tsunami that killed 230,000 people in a dozen countries.

A tsunami is caused by the massive displacement of sea water which occurs when a powerful earthquake lifts the ocean floor. 

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