Italy: State of emergency after deadly central quake

L'Aquila, 6 April (AKI) - The Italian government has declared a state of emergency after a strong earthquake in central Italy on Monday left at least 40 people dead and displaced tens of thousands. Italy's prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and interior minister Roberto Maroni headed for the city of L'Aquila in Italy's mountainous Abruzzo region.

The Vatican said Pope Benedict XVI was praying for the quake victims. The disaster left tens of thousand of people homeless.

The 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck the L'Aquila area at 3:32 am local time and was followed by a series of weaker tremors, officials said. The quake sparked panic among the city's 70,000 residents and thousands were reported to have run out onto the streets during the 30-second tremor.

Four children died when their house collapsed, and at least 7 Israelis who were staying in the area were missing, according to Israel's foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, quoted by Israel's Jerusalem Post daily.

Lieberman spoke with his Italian counterpart, Franco Frattini, following the quake, and offered to dispatch aid and any other help needed to cope with the disaster, the paper said.

The quake's epicentre was close to L'Aquila, a medieval city located 95 kilometres northeast of Rome. TV footage showed scenes of devastation after the quake with twisted steel supports, slabs of walls, furniture and wire fences strewn about the streets coated in thick grey dust.

Residents and rescuers were using their bare hands to clear the debris from collapsed buildings and there were calls for quiet as they listened for sounds of life amid the rubble.

The death toll rose steadily, and Italy's public safety chief Guido Bertolaso warned there were "numerous victims".

Many villages in the surrounding areas were cut off by landslides and the full scale of the disaster was not expected to emerge until later on Monday. Phone power lines were destroyed and some bridges and roads were closed as a precaution.

Between 3,000 to 10,000 buildings were reduced to rubble and L'Aquila's university hospital has been declared off limits amid fears it could collapse.

L'Aquila's mayor Massimo Cialente, told Italian news channel Sky TG24 that 100,000 people had left their homes and that many buildings in the historic centre were damaged.

A university dormitory, churches and a bell tower were reported to be among the buildings that collapsed. L'Aquila's cathedral also reportedly suffered damage.

The quake was the latest in a series of jolts that struck the area over the past few days. Italy's state TV channel RAI TG1 news bulletin said a local researcher was reported to police a week ago for 'causing panic' among the local population when he predicted an earthquake was imminent.

The last major quake to hit central Italy was a 5.5 magnitude tremor that hit the central-southern Molise region on 31 October, 2003, killing 28 people, 27 of whom were children whose school collapsed


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