Japan and Russian on tsunami alert

TOKYO: Japan and Russia went on alert Sunday and cleared thousands of people from vulnerable coastal areas as a tsunami triggered by the massive killer quake in Chile powered across the Pacific.

Tsunami warnings were lifted in other nations across the "Ring of Fire" as fears eased of major destructive waves, but Tokyo and Moscow were taking no chances after one of the biggest quakes on record.

Waves pummelled Chile and rolled through into Hawaii, French Polynesia and the South Pacific as the tsunami moved at jetspeed across the vast ocean after the 8.8-magnitude quake on Saturday which left at least 300 people dead.Related article: Chile quake kills over 300

Warning sirens wailed as about 50 countries and territories along an arc stretching from New Zealand to Japan were put on alert, five years after the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster that killed more than 220,000 people.

Five people were killed on the remote Robinson Crusoe archipelego far off the coast of Chile, the first reported tsunami casualties, but elsewhere no significant damage was reported and surge of water was smaller than expected.

The Hawaii-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Center later lifted its tsunami warning for everywhere but Japan and Russia, but the Philippines was also bracing for waves to hit its shores.

Japan warned that waves of up to three metres (10 feet) could hit its northern Pacific coastline, ordered more than 11,000 people living near the shore to leave and closed ports in the area.

Saturday's quake in Chile revived raw memories for Japan, where 140 lives were lost in 1960 when a 9.5 magnitude earthquake in the South American nation -- the largest on record -- sent major tsunami roaring across the Pacific.

"Last time, waves that hit after the first one became even more powerful," said Yasuo Sekita, an agency official in charge of monitoring earthquakes and tsunamis.

"We believe it will be the case this time, too," he said, as Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama set up an emergency task force. "The agency will keep the tsunami alert for quite a long time."

Russia issued a similar warning and launched an evacuation in its Pacific peninsula of Kamchatka.

"We are expecting waves of up to two metres, which is a dangerous height, and so people are asked to evacuate from dangerous zones," the Sakhalin island tsunami centre chief Tatyana Ivelskaya said.

Thousands of families in the Philippines also fled coastal areas, although it appeared there was no immediate danger.

"The most important thing is that for people not to panic. We have prepared all our local government units since last night," said Albay provincial official Joey Salceda.

The Warning Center, set up by Pacific governments after a tsunami unleashed by the 1960 quake, had warned of possible "widespread damage" from waves as high as three metres.

In Hawaii however, residents breathed sighs of relief after the tsunami led to the evacuation of thousands of people and triggered panic buying of food, water and fuel, but caused little damage.

"Smaller than we thought," said Cheryl Piel of Canada, who cancelled a trip to Maui because of the tsunami. "Just glad nobody was hurt."

US President Barack Obama, who was born in Hawaii, had warned that the US western seaboard may see dangerous waves and currents throughout the day.

"In the hours ahead, we'll continue to take every step possible to prepare our shores and protect our citizens," he said.

One tsunami measuring nearly 2.5 metres slammed into Talcahuano, one of about 11 coastal towns in Chile pounded by the surge. Trawlers were sent shooting inland to the town square where they lay oddly marooned next to abandoned cars.

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet announced a partial evacuation of Easter Island, but the island of about 4,000 people, known for its hundreds of monolithic stone statues, received a relatively small onrush of water.

One expert had said the mass of water would be hurtling across the ocean at 200 metres a second or 720 kilometres an hour, the speed of a jet plane.

"The amplitude of the wave is small when it's mid-ocean, but it may rise to five to 10 metres when it reaches Japan or the Philippines," Roger Bilham, a professor of geological sciences at the University of Colorado, told AFP.

The Warning Center, which manages a network of early-warning electronic buoys strung across the Pacific Ocean, said local authorities can assume the threat has passed when no major waves have been seen for two hours.

The region is in the middle of the "Ring of Fire", a belt of seismic fury responsible for most of the world's tremors and volcanoes.

In the island paradise of French Polynesia, schools were closed, the port in Papeete was evacuated and thousands in Tahiti's hillside areas were taken to safer areas as the waves hit.

Waves up to 1.5 metres rammed New Zealand's eastern Chatham Islands, while in Australia, the size of the surge dropped to around 40 centimetres although strong currents rolled up the east coast.

In the South Pacific island nations of Tonga and the Cook Islands, residents made their way to higher points inland.

Many islanders are still living in makeshift shelters following a terrifying tsunami in Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga that trashed entire villages in September, killing more than 180.

Despite the early warning system, the September waves came so suddenly that there was little time to flee to higher ground.