Aug 16, 2007, 6:31 GMT
Lima - A magnitude-7.9 earthquake and dozens of aftershocks shook central coastal Peru late Wednesday, killing at least 48 people and smashing homes, local media reported.
At least 350 people have also been injured, the reports said, citing local officials.
At least 20 people died and 200 were injured in the province of Ica alone, the worst hit by the quake, Lima newspapers reported.
Damage was extensive there in the most powerful earthquake Peru had seen in 50 years as well as in the provinces of Canete and Chincha, identified by the Peruvian Geophysical Institute as the epicentre of the quake. Dozens of houses collapsed and people were taken to hospital, news reports said.
In Ica city, a church had also collapsed, and many of the province's fatalities were caused when its cupola fell. The 160,000 residents of the city were also without electricity as firefighters and other rescue workers looked through the rubble in the dark for survivors.
Damage was limited in Lima, but the quake caused panic and chaos there. Thousands fled onto the streets from apartments and offices. Telephone service was cut and windows shattered. Hospitals there reported treating injuries caused by broken glass and patients suffering shock and panic. Two people died in Lima of heart attacks.
The quake was felt not only along Peru's coast but also in the country's Andean region and rainforests and into Ecuador and Brazil.
The full extent of the damage and casualties were not yet known, but all of Peru's hospitals were put on emergency alert by the Health Ministry.
The quake, which was centred just off the coast, prompted the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre to issue a warning for the west coast of South America. Before the notice was cancelled a few hours after the quake hit, evacuations of coastal communities were ordered in Peru and Colombia.
A witness in Lima, Fernando Calderon, told CNN that the ground rumbled for two minutes before a large shake came. People fled into the streets for safety from high-rise buildings. Many people were preparing to sleep in their cars in the midst of the Peruvian winter.
The tsunami warning affected Peru, Chile, Ecuador and Colombia. Lesser tsunami warnings - called a watch - were issued for Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico and Honduras.
The tsunami centre anticipated trouble because some of the temblors were rather shallow, at a depth of 30 or 40 kilometres, and more likely to cause ocean waves.
Geological experts said a small wave was generated by the quake and was detected in the open ocean, but it was not large enough to cause damage, prompting the tsunami warnings and watches to be withdrawn.
The US Geological Survey measured the initial quake at 7.9 on the Richter scale while Peru's Institute for Geophysics measured it at 7.5.
The initial, most powerful shock struck at 6:41 pm (2341 GMT) and sent about two minutes of tremors running from its epicentre near the city of Pisco, about 45 kilometres west-north-west of Chincha Alta, Peru, and 145 kilometres south-south-east of Lima, the US Geological Survey said. Its depth was about 41 kilometres.
Shudders ranging from magnitude 5.8 to 7.5 and as deep as 178 kilometres followed in its wake.
President Alan Garcia appealed for calm and called an emergency session of his cabinet overnight. Schools were ordered closed Thursday and all police officers were called out onto the streets. Hospitals were ordered to treat all patients without exception.
Health Ministry doctors had been on strike when the quake struck, but they immediately called off their work stoppage to treat the injured.
Hernando Tavera, spokesman for the national Geophysical Institute, said the quake was the strongest to shake Peru in a half-century and the institute expected strong aftershooks over the next four to seven days.
The magnitude of Wednesday's earthquake matched that of the most deadly natural disaster Peru has every seen, a 1970 magnitude-7.9 tremor centred on the northern coast that caused a landslide and killed 47,000 people.
Its strength was less that the magnitude-9 tremor that set off the Indian Ocean tsunami that left 230,000 people dead or missing on December 26, 2004.
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