337 killed in Peru earthquake

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A powerful 7.9-magnitude earthquake shook Peru's coast near the capital, toppling buildings, setting off landslides and killing at least 337 people and injuring more than 1,300 others, Peru's National Institute for Civil Defence said.

Deputy Health Minister Jose Calderon called the situation "dramatic" in Ica, a city of 650,000 people 165 miles south-east of the capital Lima.

He encouraged Peruvians to donate blood for the injured and said a convoy of doctors and nurses was headed to the Ica area

News reports said hundreds of people were crowding hospitals in the city seeking help even though the hospitals had suffered cracks and other structural damage.

Among the dead were 17 people killed when a church collapsed in Ica, according to cable news station Canal N. Another 70 people were injured in that incident.

The US Geological Survey said the earthquake hit at 6.40pm local time on Wednesday about 90 miles south-east of Lima at a depth of about 25 miles. Four strong aftershocks ranging from magnitudes of 5.4 to 5.9 were felt afterward.

The Hawaii-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre issued a tsunami warning for the coasts of Peru, Chile, Ecuador, Colombia, Costa Rica and Panama. A tsunami watch was issued for the rest of Central America and Mexico and an advisory for Hawaii.

The centre cancelled all the alerts after about two hours, but it said the quake had caused an estimated 10-inch tsunami near the epicentre.

"It wasn't big enough to be destructive," said Stuart Weinstein, the centre's assistant director.

An Associated Press photographer said some homes had collapsed in the centre of Lima and many people had fled into the streets for safety. The capital shook for more than a minute.

President Alan Garcia ordered all police personnel to the streets of Lima to keep order and said he was sending the country's health minister and two other Cabinet members to Ica. Garcia also said public schools will be closed today because the buildings may be unsafe.

Police reported that large boulders shook loose from hills and were blocking the country's Central Highway east of Lima.

Firefighters quoted in radio reports said that many street lights and windows shattered in Lima but did not specify if there were any injuries. Hundreds of workers were evacuated from Lima office buildings after the quake struck and remained outside, fearing aftershocks

Callers to Radioprogramas, Peru's main news radio station, said parts of several cities in southern Peru had been hit with blackouts. Callers reported homes in poor neighbourhoods in Chincha near Ica had collapsed.

The quake also knocked out telephone service and mobile phone service in the capital. Firefighters were called to put out a fire in a shopping centre. State doctors called off a national strike that began on Wednesday to handle the emergency.

The last time a quake of magnitude 7.0 or larger struck Peru was in September 2005 when a 7.5 magnitude earthquake rocked Peru's northern jungle, killing four people. In 2001, a 7.9-magnitude quake struck near the southern Andean city of Arequipa, killing 71 people.

The latest Peru quake occurred in a subduction zone where one section of the Earth's crust dives under another, said USGS geophysicist Dale Grant at the National Earthquake Information Centre in Golden, Colorado.

Some of the world's biggest quakes strike in subduction zones including the catastrophic Indian Ocean quake in 2004 that generated deadly tsunami waves.