Santiago - A powerful 8.3-magnitude earthquake struck off Chile on Wednesday, killing at least five people, forcing the evacuation of one million and sparking warnings that tsunami waves could reach as far as Japan.
Buildings swayed as far away as in Buenos Aires, Argentina. In Chile, people ran out into the streets in terror.
TV footage buildings showed stores with floors strewn with a mushy mess of broken bottles and other spilled merchandise.
It was the sixth biggest most powerful quake in the history of quake-prone Chile and the strongest anywhere in the world this year, Deputy Interior Minister Mahmoud Aleuy said.
Giving the death and evacuation toll, Aleuy said 245,000 families were left without power.
Central Choapa province closest to the epicenter was declared a catastrophe zone and placed under military rule.
The United States Geological Survey (USGS) put the shallow offshore quake at a magnitude of 8.3 and said it hit 228 kilometers north of Santiago, a city of 6.6 million people.
"The motion began lightly, then stronger and stronger," said Santiago resident Jeannette Matte.
"We were on the 12th floor and we were very afraid because it was not stopping. First it was from side to side, then it was like little jumps."
Interior Minister Jorge Burgos said evacuation of coastal towns and cities had been ordered as a precautionary measure. Classes were cancelled in coastal areas.
"We know there could be more aftershocks and so we must continue to evaluate the situation minute-by-minute," Bachelet said.
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A tsunami warning was initially in place for the whole of Chile and Peru's Pacific coastline.
Among the dead were a woman in Illapel, close to the epicenter, and an 86-year-old man in Santiago, where there were scenes of pandemonium as thousands fled swaying buildings.
Hardest-hit Illapel, a coastal city of 30,000, saw its electricity fail and several homes were damaged.
In coastal La Serena, in the north of Chile, "people were running in all directions," said resident Gloria Navarro.
A similar fear seized residents in Argentina.
"We went into a panic and the floor kept moving. We went out into the hallway and down the stairs," Celina Atrave, 65, who lives in a 25-story high-rise near downtown Buenos Aires, told AFP.
The quake, which struck at 7:54 pm, hit at a depth of eight kilometers, USGS said. Seismologists also reported multiple aftershocks, some of them above 6.0.
The Chilean government put the main earthquake at 8.4 on the Richter scale.- As far as Japan -
The Hawaii-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said that "hazardous" tsunami waves were possible for some parts of Chile's shoreline, including some three meters above the tide level.
Tsunami waves were also possible in French Polynesia, Hawaii and California, officials said, as well as smaller waves as far afield as Japan and New Zealand.
The first tsunami waves struck Chile's coast, including the tourist city of Valparaiso, local television pictures showed, but there were no immediate details of damage or injuries.
The precautionary alert for Peru was later called off, civil defense officials said, but scared residents in the city of Ilo, close to the border with Chile, remained out on the streets and on higher ground nonetheless.
In April last year, a deadly 8.2-magnitude earthquake in northern Chile killed six people and forced a million to leave their homes in the region around Iquique.
And a February 2010 quake that struck just off the coast of Chile's Maule region measured 8.8 in magnitude, making it one of the largest ever recorded.
It killed more than 500 people and inflicted an estimated $30 billion in damages.