ecuador earthquake.jpg
Photograph: EPA/JOSE JACOME

Ecuador's strongest earthquake since 1979 has killed at least 235 people, caused widespread damage and prompted the government to declare a state of emergency and deploy thousands of soldiers.

The 7.8-magnitude quake that struck Saturday evening some 170 kilometres north-west of the capital Quito also left 1,557 injured, the office of the presidency said in a statement on Sunday.

The government deployed 10,000 soldiers and 3,500 police officers to the affected areas, while workers from abroad were on their way to support rescue efforts.

President Rafael Correa was rushing back home from Italy, where he had been attending a conference at the Vatican. He wrote on Twitter that he planned to visit the hard-hit city of Manta on Sunday night.

A state of emergency is in place in five costal provinces, his office said, while on social media Correa urged Ecuadorians to exercise care near quake-damaged buildings and avoid power poles.

The president said emergency shelters would be erected and that two mobile hospitals were being put in place.

Dozens of aftershocks, several of them magnitude-5.0 or greater, have rattled the country in the hours after the quake hit.

There were widespread reports of power outages and road closures, with the destruction also wreaking havoc in Ecuador's largest city, Guayaquil, where multistory buildings were said to have collapsed.

El Comercio newspaper reported that Pedernales, a coastal town popular with tourists, remained cut off from outside help.

The quake came as a result of movement at or near the plate boundary between the Nazca and Pacific plates, US Geological Survey said.

Ecuador - on the so-called Pacific "ring of fire" - has a history of such quakes. Since 1900, seven magnitude-7 or greater earthquakes have had an epicentre within 250 kilometres of the latest quake, the US agency said.

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