ISLAMABAD (Reuters) -A major earthquake shook cities and villages across the south Asian subcontinent on Saturday, "wiping out" several villages in Pakistan and causing scores of casualties.
Officials said heavy damage was expected in the north of Pakistan, but details were difficult to obtain because telephone lines were down and mobile networks overwhelmed.
The earthquake, with a magnitude of 7.6, struck at 0350 GMT. It was centered about 95 km (60 miles) northeast of Islamabad, near the Indian border, and was followed by a series of four aftershocks of magnitudes between 5.4 and 5.9.
They were felt across the subcontinent and shook buildings in the Afghan and Indian capitals, Kabul and New Delhi.
"We have reports that several entire villages have been wiped out," Pakistan Interior Minister Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao told ARY One television.
He did not estimate the population of the villages nor say where they were located.
Scores of people were feared killed or trapped in two 12-storey apartment blocks reduced to rubble in Islamabad.
Reuters correspondents saw the bodies of at least three people being pulled out, as well as six injured people plucked alive from the debris. Residents struggled to shift heavy concrete with their bare hands.
Officials told Reuters the two blocks had contained 75 apartments.
"I just cannot say how many people are still under there and we are trying to evacuate them. Over 75 apartments were affected, so the number of people is in the hundreds," said Mohammad Ali, a government official in Islamabad.
Geo TV said 25 people had been killed in Pakistani Kashmir and around 30 in the Hazara area of North West Frontier Province. Pakistan state television said an Egyptian diplomat had also been killed.
"The quake jolted me awake and I saw people running down the staircase," said Sabahat Ahmed, a resident of one of the blocks.
"By the time the second tremor hit, the building had already started to collapse.
"As the building was collapsing people were still coming out from it. I heard and saw various people in a state of panic and many stuck under the collapsed building.
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) described the quake as "major," saying it took place at a depth of 10 km (6.2 miles).
"We can say that it was one of the strongest earthquakes (ever) felt in Islamabad," said Mohammad Hanif, an official at the Pakistan Meteorological Department.
Witnesses and Reuters correspondents could hear people screaming in fear inside their houses in Islamabad during the initial quake, which lasted for about a minute. Car and house alarms were set off by the shaking.
Minutes later sirens could be heard as emergency vehicles began racing through the city of close to a million people. An army spokesman told CNN troops were helping in rescue efforts.
The situation was still tense, witnesses said, with residents listening and watching the crows — which are believed to fall silent immediately before an earthquake.
In the eastern city of Lahore, at least nine people were injured, police said. They included eight officials of the paramilitary rangers caught when their office roof collapsed.
At least 16 people were killed and scores injured in Indian Kashmir and the earthquake damaged hundreds of houses and caused landslides blocking highways, officials and media reports said.
"Sixteen deaths have been reported, all from Jammu and Kashmir. There are also unconfirmed reports from other areas," an Indian interior ministry official told Reuters.
Witnesses and officials in Indian-administered Kashmir said several buildings had been damaged in the northern districts of Uri, Baramullah and Kupwara. Strong tremors triggered landslides, blocking the 300-km (190-mile) Jammu-Srinagar highway.
A young girl was killed in eastern Afghanistan when a wall collapsed, but authorities said the country appeared to have escaped the worst of the quake.
"Thank God there doesn”t seem to have been any serious damage, although it”s very difficult to get information immediately as our communications are not strong enough," said Fatima Gailani of Afghanistan”s Red Crescent.
The area where the quake took place is known for its frequent seismic activity and experts have long predicted an imminent major earthquake in the Himalayan region.