At least five people are dead after a powerful 8.2-magnitude earthquake struck in the Pacific Ocean off Chile, triggering a tsunami that generated waves of more than two metres high and forcing tens of thousands to evacuate.
The quake struck at 8.46pm on Tuesday (local time) at a depth of 20km, and 95km north-west of the mining port town of Iquique. The tremor was near the Peruvian border, which was rocked by a 6.7 quake just over two weeks ago.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii said the quake generated a large tsunami, with the biggest wave reported at 2.3 metres high. The first big wave hit the coast within 45 minutes of the tremor and roads were gridlocked as thousands of people abandoned their coastal homes for higher ground.
The tsunami warning is being extended for northern Chile, but the alert has been cancelled for other areas.
Officials say four men and a woman died in the northern cities of Iquique and Alto Hospicio either of a heart attack or after being crushed by debris. Several more people have been seriously hurt.
The 8.2 quake was felt in Bolivia and Peru and was followed by aftershocks, including one of 6.2 magnitude on Tuesday.
President Michelle Bachelet has declared parts of northern Chile to be disaster zones and will visit the region on Wednesday to see the full extent of the damage. Landslides, blackouts and fires have been reported.
Ms Bachelet has ordered that military be sent to affected areas to prevent looting and disorder, but already a government minister has said 300 female inmates have escaped from a prison in Iquique. Police said about 16 have been recaptured.
Chile is one of the most seismically active countries in the world and a large earthquake has long been expected in the north.
In February 2010, central and southern Chile were hit by a powerful earthquake of 8.8 magnitude followed by a tsunami that devastated dozens of towns. The quake left more than 500 dead and caused $US30 billion damage, AFP reports.
Unusual currents may affect NZ
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre has issued an advisory, saying sea level changes and strong currents may occur along Hawaii's coast that could be a hazard to swimmers, boaties and people near the shore.
Authorities in New Zealand have said there is no threat of a tsunami there, but Waikato Civil Defence said there is a possibility of unusual tidal currents over the next couple of days, particularly around harbours and estuaries. People should check that their moorings are secure.