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Indians return after tsunami alert

Special Report:  Tsunami Disaster

• Gallery: Quake aftermath
• Animation: How tsunami forms
• Aid agencies: How to help
• Map of region: Nations affected

PORT BLAIR, India (CNN) -- A tsunami warning from Indian authorities appeared to be a false alarm, as thousands of panicked residents returned to coastal areas after officials said the warning was meant as advice to be careful, not orders to evacuate.

Thursday's warning triggered panic in hard-hit Tamil Nadu state on India's southeastern coast and the country's remote Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where thousands died in Sunday's tsunamis.

Officials said police decided to take no chances when they ordered people out of the coastal areas. Among those ordered to move several kilometers inland were members of a CNN crew in Nagappattinam in Tamil Nadu.

India's government has been criticized for not having done enough to evacuate coastal areas before Sunday's tsunamis hit.

The 9.0-magnitude earthquake that triggered the tsunamis sent deadly waves to Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Sri Lanka before they struck India's coast. More than 10,000 Indians were killed.

On Thursday, Indian authorities earlier issued a warning on its state media to head for higher ground despite the apparent absence of any major seismological activity.

The alert said there was evidence from foreign experts that a powerful earthquake could occur Thursday afternoon near Australia, triggering another tsunami in the Indian Ocean, the state-run Press Trust of India reported.

Sri Lanka initially said it would follow suit, but then quickly decided against issuing any evacuation orders, although an Indian naval ship off the coast of Galle sent a radio warning into the city.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, which monitors earthquake activity around the world, the most recent aftershock from Sunday's quake happened Thursday around 11:30 a.m. (4:30 p.m. Wednesday ET), and measured a moderate 5.3 magnitude. It was centered near Indonesia's Sumatra island.

The USGS has recorded more than 70 aftershocks from Sunday's quake, according to the agency's Web site. The strongest measured 7.1 and occurred about three hours after the initial quake, but most have been between 5 and 6 in magnitude. None have produced tsunamis.

USGS geophysicist John Minsch told CNN the center had not recorded any major activity that would spawn a tsunami.

"We have not located any large earthquakes or aftershocks in recent hours," Minsch said at 1 p.m. New Delhi time (2:30 a.m. ET).

CNN Correspondents Ram Ramgopal in Nagappattinam, India; Satinder Bindra near Colombo, Sri Lanka; Suhasini Haidar in Port Blair, India; and Journalist Iqbal Athas near Colombo contributed to this report.

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