Four strong quakes shake Italy, isolating towns blanketed by snow
Four strong earthquakes have shaken the same region of central Italy that suffered deadly tremors last year.
The quakes sent residents into panic and further isolated towns that have been buried under more than three feet of snow for days.
Premier Paolo Gentiloni said it appeared no one was killed, but that it was a "difficult day" for Italy.
The first tremor, with a preliminary magnitude of 5.3, hit Montereale at about 10.25am, according to the US Geological Survey.
A second quake with a magnitude of 5.7 hit the same area about 50 minutes later, and 10 minutes later a third was measured at a magnitude of 5.3. Several hours later another 5.1-magnitude quake shook the same area.
Throughout the day, seismologists registered more than 100 aftershocks.
Several towns and hamlets in the quake zone had already sounded the alarm in recent days that they were without electricity and were isolated from major roads due to the unusually heavy snowfall that has blanketed much of central Italy.
The quakes only made matters worse, knocking out some mobile phone service, hampering the emergency response and sending quake-weary residents into panic. The defence ministry promised to send in army units to help.
"The situation is really getting extreme," said the mayor of Canzano, Franco Campitelli. "It's snowing hard. We're without electricity. We hope the army gets here soon with snow ploughs or we risk being completely isolated," he said.
The quakes, which had their epicentres in the L'Aquila region, were felt as far away as Rome, 100 miles to the south-west.
In the Italian capital, the subway was closed for hours as a precaution, parents were asked to pick up their children from some schools, and offices, banks and shops were evacuated temporarily.
But elsewhere in Rome at the Vatican, Pope Francis' Wednesday general audience went off without a hitch.
In the Umbrian pilgrimage town of Assisi, friars closed the Santa Maria degli Angeli basilica as a precaution. The basilica hosts the famed Porziuncola chapel, birthplace of the Franciscan order of the Pope's namesake, St Francis of Assisi.
Three quakes in mountainous central Italy last year killed nearly 300 people in and around the medieval town of Amatrice and caused significant damage to older buildings. The tower of one of Amatrice's churches toppled in Wednesday's quakes.
L'Aquila itself suffered a devastating 6.3-magnitude earthquake in 2009 that killed more than 300 people.
Mayor Maurizio Pelosi of Capitagno, near the epicentre of Wednesday's quakes, said even before the earth shook many roads into and out of the town were blocked due to the snow.
A hotel worker in town, Giuseppe Di Felice, said people could not get out of their homes.
"It's apocalyptic," he said.