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In stricken areas, a race for high ground

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia -- Women carrying children ran into the darkened streets, crying and praying. Some held onto a fence to steady themselves, chanting ''Allahu Akbar," or ''God is great."

Other people grabbed bags of clothes and fled their tents and homes for higher ground.

The shaking and swaying was gentle but lasted a full two minutes -- far longer than most of the frequent aftershocks that have rocked Banda Aceh since Dec. 26, when a huge earthquake triggered a tsunami.

The tsunami wiped out more than 126,000 people in Indonesia's Aceh province and left more than 400,000 homeless. Then, there was little warning that the quake would bring gigantic waves of water.

This time, people knew about the risks and were taking no chances of a repeat.

''People are still traumatized, still scared, they are running for higher ground," said Feri, a 24-year-old recovery volunteer who goes by one name.

Other Indonesians, however, sounded fatalistic. In Uleelhe, one of the low-lying Banda Aceh neighborhoods worst hit by the disaster three months ago, a man rushed to the local mosque.

''Where can I go? You can't outrun a tsunami," said the man, who would not give his name.

The quake, which struck at 11:09 p.m. local time yesterday as many people were sleeping, knocked out electricity. Flickering camp fires and motorbike and car headlights provided the only illumination across Banda Aceh, the provincial capital.

People ran out into the streets, wearing prayer shawls, sarongs, and sleeping garments. Quickly, the city's main roads became clogged with traffic: motorbikes, pickup trucks loaded down with entire families.

At the biggest refugee camp in Banda Aceh, people milled around the streets waiting for news. After some time, a voice on the camp intercom announced that people could return to their tents and that there was no tsunami.

On Nias island, south of the epicenter, hundreds of people were reported killed and hundreds of buildings were damaged.

Agus Mendrofa, the deputy mayor of Gunungsitoli, a town of about 30,000 people on Nias, said about 10,000 people had fled. ''Gunungsitoli is now like a dead town," he said. ''The situation here is in extreme panic."

The MISNA missionary news agency in Rome reported that a huge fire was raging early today in Gunungsitoli. ''From the window I see very high flames," MISNA quoted the Rev. Raymond Laia as saying by telephone about two miles from the town. ''The town is completely destroyed."

A police officer, who identified himself as Nainggolan, said rescuers were trying to pull people out of the rubble, and that many were still panicking because of several aftershocks. ''It is very hard also because there is no power," Nainggolan said.

''Aftershocks keep hitting every half hour making thousands of people flee their homes and afraid to go home."

In addition to western Indonesia, the quake tremors spread terror in Sri Lanka and coastal parts of India, Malaysia, and Thailand, the areas ravaged by the Dec. 26 floods. Tens of thousands of panic-stricken people fled to higher ground after the initial tsunami warnings yesterday.

In the Malaysian coastal city of Penang, people were jolted out of their beds just past midnight local time. Residents fled their shaking apartments and hotels.

Material from Reuters was included in this report.

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