By Ria Novosti
Police said at least 703 people have been killed by the powerful earthquake and tsunami that swept northern Japan on Friday, with the death toll likely to run into a thousand, according to the government.
About 1,000 have been injured and 784 have gone missing after the 8.9-magnitude quake and the 10-meter tsunami wave swept away houses and cars. The number of victims could rise well above a thousand people, the Kyodo news agency quoted Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano as saying on Saturday.
Japanese authorities have evacuated about 215,000 residents from areas worst affected by the quake and the tsunami, police said on Saturday.
The tremor, the most powerful ever recorded in Japan and world’s fifth strongest, affected nine prefectures.
Many coastal areas in the Pacific, Southeast Asia and Latin America, including Russia, Indonesia, New Zealand, Chile and the Philippines, have been put on tsunami alert.
The quake hit the Fukushima nuclear power plant in northeastern Japan. Media reported high radiation levels in and near the first unit of the plant on Saturday, citing low water levels and overheated reactors as the causes. People began to be evacuated from the area.
Officials denied any leaks to begin with. Later the Industry Ministry called an emergency news conference to say that experts had released pressure and let out steam in the reactors of the first unit in a move to prevent radiation leaks in the area.
The release of steam is likely to include radioactive materials, the Kyodo news agency said earlier.
Another powerful aftershock
A magnitude 6.8 aftershock earthquake was registered east of Japan’s largest island of Honshu at 4:47 Moscow time [1:47 GMT], the U.S. Geological Survey said.
No tsunami alert was issued.
Japan’s chief meteorological agency said aftershocks with a magnitude of above 7 were likely to continue for at least a month.
Several aftershocks occurred shortly after the initial quake. The strongest was measured at 7.1 on the Richter scale. Twelve hours after the initial quake struck off the country’s northeast coast, a 6.6 aftershock earthquake ripped through Japan’s western Niigata prefecture.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that its officials were discussing relief efforts with Japanese authorities. The UN has also alerted the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG), a global network of 80 countries and disaster response organizations under the UN aegis, the UN News Center said.
Elisabeth Byrs of OCHA said some 68 search-and-rescue teams were ready to assist in relief efforts.
Mexico was among the first countries who announced it was sending aid to the disaster-hit country. The first group of rescuers with sniffer dogs set off for Japan on Saturday morning.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said on Friday Russia was “certainly ready to help our neighbors in tackling the consequences of this earthquake.”
The president’s envoy to Far East told Japan’s Consul General in Khabarovsk that the region was ready to “provide all the necessary assistance.”
“On first request, the emergencies ministry, regional authorities, healthcare institutions, industry and transport infrastructure specialists are ready to assist in relief efforts,” Viktor Ishayev said.
“Such a serious earthquake came as a surprise for us. The whole situation is yet unclear. As soon as we get all information, we will definitely inform you of the aid we need,” Consul General Tsuguo Takahashi said.
Among other countries offering help are the United States, South Korea, China, Thailand, Singapore, Poland, Switzerland, France and the United Kingdom.
Russia lifts tsunami alert
Early on Saturday, Russian rescue services lifted the tsunami alert issued after the 10-meter wave struck Japan’s eastern coast on Friday. A four-meter tsunami wave forced evacuation of about 11,000 at Kuril Islands in the Russian Far East, but no serious damage was reported.
The Russian emergencies ministry still advises residents of Sakhalin and the Kuril Archipelago to stay at higher ground.