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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kuril Islands Wracked by Fatal Quake

VLADIVOSTOK -- Residents of the remote Kuril Islands fled to high ground Wednesday fearing aftershocks to the region's strongest quake in a quarter-century will trigger deadly waves.

The earthquake Tuesday night killed at least nine people, destroying buildings, tossing boats ashore and generating tidal waves almost three meters high that swamped coastal areas. Many people fear more waves.

"They are in the hills with no food, no water or personal belongings,'' said Yevgeny Kulkov, a reporter on Sakhalin Island who spoke to Vladivostok radio. "Helicopters have been unable to reach those in the hills because of bad weather.''

Rescue crews from Moscow, Siberia and the Far East flew to the remote Kurils north of Japan Wednesday to begin evacuating the injured and help restore emergency services knocked out by the earthquake.

The undersea quake, with a preliminary magnitude of 7.9, was centered about 160 kilometers east of Japan's northern coast near the Kurils.

Dozens of aftershocks, some as powerful as magnitude 6, rattled the region Wednesday morning, but no new damage or injuries were reported.

In Moscow, President Boris Yeltsin's Cabinet planned a special session to discuss the emergency, the second major natural disaster in the region this fall. Severe flooding late last month killed at least five people and caused more than $200 million in damage.

There were conflicting reports about the casualty toll, and damage to power and telephone lines complicated the work of authorities trying to assess the disaster.

Russian authorities said Tuesday that 16 people had been killed. But Oleg Meshkov, a spokesman for the regional emergency commission on Sakhalin Island, said that nine people in the Kurils were dead. Sakhalin, 400 miles (650 kms) northwest of the Kurils, escaped major damage.

The victims were found on three islands of the southern Kurils -- Shikotan, Kunashir and Iturup, authorities said. Most were killed by falling debris.

Authorities said the death toll could rise.

As many as 10 people were feared buried under debris in the Kurils, and dozens of others were reported injured.

Japan's Central Meteorological Agency put the quake's magnitude at 7.9, making it the strongest temblor to hit the region in 26 years.

The National Earthquake Center in Golden, Colorado, estimated the earthquake's preliminary magnitude at 8.2, but it is common for preliminary estimates of an earthquake's magnitude to differ.

The quake sent Japanese coastal residents fleeing for high ground and scared even quake-jaded Tokyo, 965 kilometers to the south.

But the quake's brutal brunt was borne by the Kurils. In the regional capital of Yuzhno-Kurilsk, all of the buildings either collapsed or were badly damaged, and residents fled for their lives as huge quake-spawned waves battered the islands, Vladivostok radio reported.

The Burevestnik airport was closed because of earthquake damage and phone service to the Kurils cut off, Vladivostok radio reported. In some parts of the islands, cracks in the earth 45 centimeters wide were visible.

No fatalities were reported in Japan as a direct result of the quake, but an air force jet went down while surveying the east coast of Hokkaido.

About 50,000 Russians, including several thousand military troops, live in the southern Kurils, which stretch between Hokkaido and Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula. They are controlled by Russia but claimed by Japan.

The Soviet Union seized the islands from Japan at the end of World War II, and as a result the two nations never signed a treaty ending the war.