A powerful earthquake struck a huge swathe of central Italy as residents slept early this morning, killing at least 27 people when houses, churches and other buildings collapsed.
The dead were mainly in L'Aquila, a 13th century mountain city about 100 km (60 miles) east of Rome that has a population of 68,000, and surrounding villages.
The Italian news agency Ansa, citing hospital services, put the death toll at 27 less than six hours after the quake.
The Civil Protection Department said the quake most likely killed "tens of people". Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi cancelled a trip to Moscow and said he had declared a national emergency, which would free up funds for aid and rebuilding.
A spokesman for the Maltese Foreign Ministry said the Consul for Malta in the area had so far not received any reports of Maltese casualties. Five Maltese families live in the region. Tours are also organised to the area, although it does not appear that there were any today.
"I woke up hearing what sounded like a bomb," said Angela Palumbo, 87, as she walked on a street of L'Aquila.
"We managed to escape with things falling all around us. Everything was shaking, furniture falling. I don't remember ever seeing anything like this in my life," she said.
Rubble was strewn throughout the city and nearby towns, blocking roads and hampering rescue teams and residents who tried to lift debris with their bare hands in a search for survivors from the quake, which had a magnitude of at least 5.8.
"Thousands of people (could be left) homeless and thousands of buildings collapsed or damaged," said Agostino Miozzo, an official at the Civil Protection Department.
A resident in l'Aquila standing by an apartment block that had been reduced to the height of an adult said: "This building was four storeys high." Some cars were buried by the rubble.
In another section of the city, residents tried to hush the wailing of grief to try to pinpoint the sound of a crying baby.
It was the worst earthquake in terms of deaths to hit Italy since 2002, when 30 children were killed in a school collapse in the south.
But officials said the death toll from this earthquake could be worse because more buildings were damaged over a wider area.
FOUR CHILDREN KILLED IN ONE BUILDING
Four children were reported killed in one building in l'Aquila, two people were dead in one outlying village and five in another. A number of people were reported to have been injured and still trapped under rubble, officials said.
There were numerous reports of some the area's centuries-old Romanesque and Renaissance churches collapsing.
Part of a university residence and a hotel collapsed in l'Aquila but it was not clear if anyone was inside. The quake brought down the bell tower of a church in the city centre.
Some bridges and highways in the mountainous area were closed as a precaution.
The quake struck shortly after 3.30 a.m. and was centred in the mountainous Abruzzo region east of Rome.
People in many parts of central Italy felt the quake and some ran out into the streets. Residents of Rome, which is rarely hit by seismic activity, were woken by the quake. Furniture rattled, lights swayed and car alarms went off.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake's epicentre was believed to be about 60 miles (95 km) from Rome and that its depth was 6.2 miles (10 km).
The agency initially put the scale of the quake at 6.7 but later lowered it to 6.3. Italian officials put the magnitude at about 5.8.
The quake was the latest and strongest in a series to hit the l'Aquila area on Sunday and Monday. Earthquakes can be particularly dangerous in parts of Italy because so many buildings are centuries-old.
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