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Guatemala City - A strong earthquake off the coast of Guatemala shook buildings in the capital and killed at least 18 people on Wednesday, trapping others under rubble and triggering evacuations as far away as Mexico City.
The 7.4 magnitude quake hit at 10.35am local time (16h35 GMT). A local fire chief said the dead were buried under rubble in two different Guatemalan towns in the mountainous region near the Mexican border.
Landslides were blocking roads in some areas, authorities said, and about 40 houses were severely damaged.
It was the strongest earthquake to hit Guatemala since a 7.5 magnitude quake in 1976 that claimed more than 20 000 lives.
President Otto Perez said that as many as 100 people were unaccounted for, based on reports from relatives.
“These are preliminary figures and we don't have them confirmed,” Perez said in Guatemala City. “Our priority is to focus on lives, rescuing people and treating the wounded.”
He said there had been five aftershocks. Local fire chief Cecilio Chacaj said the bodies of the 18 dead had been pulled from rubble in the towns of San Marcos and Quetzaltenango.
The quake struck off Guatemala's Pacific coast, 24km south of Champerico and 160km west-southwest of the capital, the US Geological Survey said.
Evacuations in Guatemala City filled the streets with office workers calling friends and relatives on their cellphones, but people soon returned to work.
“It was really big; I felt quite nauseous,” said secretary Vanessa Castillo, 32, who was evacuated from her 10th floor office in Guatemala City.
Building janitor Jorge Gamboa said: “I was in the bathroom. When I came out the office was empty and I thought, what's happening? They didn't even say goodbye.”
The epicentre was 42km below the surface, according to the USGS, which initially reported the quake as magnitude 7.5.
The quake was also felt in El Salvador and more than 1 200km away in Mexico City, where some people also fled offices and homes. Mayor Marcelo Ebrard said the quake was felt strongly in a large part of the city of 20-million people.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre said a very small tsunami was registered on Guatemala's coast, adding there was a risk of localised damage within a 100km radius. - Reuters