Magnitude 6.3 earthquake hits New Zealand’s South Island; dozens dead

A magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck the South Island of New Zealand at 12:51 PM local time on Tuesday (Monday 23:51 UTC). At least 32 people have been killed. Earlier, Prime Minister John Key advised media of 65 deaths from collapsing buildings in central Christchurch, with more expected, but the number was cut in half because police have only been able to confirm the deaths of 32 people. The spire of the iconic Anglican ChristChurch Cathedral has fallen and rubble is strewn throughout the central business district. Roads and carparks have cracked and lifted, and two buses are reported to be crushed under the bus exchange. Pools of mud have erupted due to burst water mains and liquefaction. Boulders and falling cliff faces have destroyed buildings on hillside suburbs. Fears for the safety of nearby towns Lyttleton and Akaroa are exacerbated due to communication problems.

The Pico Wholefood building in Christchurch was badly damaged by the earthquake. Image: Schwede66.

The earthquake was centered near Christchurch, at a depth of five kilometers, according to the United States Geological Survey. Unlike previous quakes in the region that caused no fatalities, Tuesday quake was shallower and closer to the central city and the damage was much worse. Condemned buildings, weakened by last year’s widespread earthquakes, were destroyed. Some aftershocks have occurred in the area after the earthquake. The largest so far was a magnitude 5.6 which occurred at 7:04 p.m. February 21 EDT (1:04:18 p.m. local time, February 22). The historic Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Christchurch has half collapsed, while the old Canterbury Provincial Chambers building, Piko Wholefoods, Canterbury Television, and a church on Durham Street have been destroyed.

The earthquake also caused an estimated 30 million tons of ice to break off of the Tasman Glacier forming icebergs in a lake near its foot. Tourists on boats at the time of the quake say waves of 3.5 meters swept the lake for at least 30 minutes following the event. The glacier sits on the country’s west coast, approximately 120 miles (200km) from Christchurch. No injuries were reported.

Many people are trapped in damaged buildings or under rubble, but emergency services have been hampered by gridlock as motorists and pedestrians evacuated the CBD. The main hospital remains operational despite one damaged ward being closed, and three triage centres have been set up to provide medical aid. Several hundred delegates attending a medical conference in the city, the great majority from Australia, have been trapped in the city; some of these are assisting with tending to the injured.

Electricity, telephone services, and traffic lights suffered widespread outages. Telecom is attempting to assess the damage, and generators have been sent down from Auckland to replace the backup generators in the city. Civil Defence is mounting a response with all available national resources, and Cabinet is holding an emergency session. Speaking to Radio New Zealand, Mayor Bob Parker said he was “thrown quite a distance”, that there were scenes of “great confusion” on the streets, and that the quake was “as violent as the one that happened on the 4th of September”. The emergency telephone code, 111 was not working for the entire region of Southland, New Zealand but is apparently stable as of approx. 4 pm NZDT. Christchurch Airport is currently closed to all but emergency flights. Speaking after the earthquake, Bob Parker said at least 200 people are believed trapped under rubble, saying that New Zealand are “going to be presented with statistics that are going to be bleak”.

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Libya blocks access to Internet

The Libyan government has cut off Internet access in the country. The General Posts and Telecommunications Company, Libya’s main provider of Internet access, has ceased to function. It was shut down following citizen protests against the country’s leader, Muammar Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi, who has been in power since 1969.

The government of Egypt took a similar measure last month, when it cut off Internet trying to quell public protests against the regime. Despite the government’s efforts, Egyptians who took to the streets for two weeks were able to oust the nation’s president, Hosni Mubarak, after 30 years in office.

Muammar Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi, also known as Colonel Gaddafi, has been the leader of Libya since 1969. In the picture, al-Gaddafi in Dimashq, Syria. Image: James Gordon.

Limited access to the Internet makes it difficult to get information from the country. Libya is a country with a smaller population than Egypt, and has fewer service providers, which has apparently made the task of disconnecting everything a little easier.

In Egypt, the military refused to attack people protesting. The situation is different in Libya, where the armed forces attacked hundreds of demonstrators in the square of the city of Benghazi, causing many deaths.

The increasing violence in Libya has prompted the 27 European Union ministers to issue a statement protesting Libyan governmental violence toward protesters, saying it “condemns the ongoing repression against demonstrators in Libya and deplores the violence and death of civilians.” Two Libyan pilots have defected to Malta and asked for asylum, saying that they were ordered to fire on protesters, according to Maltese officials.

The violence has spread to Tripoli. Witnesses have reported that a “massacre” occurred today in suburbs of the Libyan capital with the indiscriminate shooting of women and children. According to Human Rights Watch, hundreds have died over the last four days.

The escalating violence is causing turbulence in the world energy markets. The International Monetary Fund says that energy exports accounts for approximately 95% of Libya’s export earning.

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