KATHMANDU - Hundreds of people were feared killed in Nepal Saturday after a massive 7.9 magnitude earthquake ripped through large parts of the country, toppling office blocks and towers in the panic-stricken capital Kathmandu.
Officials said that at least 114 people are known to have died in Nepal but that the toll could be many times higher, while casualties were also reported in neighbouring India and Bangladesh.
There were also reports of an avalanche at Mount Everest's base camp in Nepal where scores of mountaineers have gathered at the start of the annual climbing season.
"In Kathmandu 71 have been reported dead so far," home ministry spokesman Laxmi Prasad Dhakal told AFP as the scale of the disaster began to emerge. Another 43 had been reported dead in the nearby Bhaktapur district, he added.
At least a dozen bodies were taken away from the ruins of Kathmandu's landmark Dharahara tower, according to an AFP photographer who saw similar scenes of multiple casualties in other parts of the city.
While contact with Nepal was sporadic, a senior Nepalese diplomat warned that the final toll could run into many hundreds.
"We have received reports that there is a big loss of property and life in Nepal," Krishna Prasad Dhakal, the deputy chief of mission at Nepal's Embassy in New Delhi, told AFP.
"Possibly hundreds of people have died in various parts of the country, particularly in Kathmandu and Pokhara."
At least three people were known to have died in northern India while buildings in the capital New Delhi had to be evacuated.
The United States Geological Survey and India's meteorogical service said the shallow quake struck 81 kilometres northwest of Kathmandu at 0611 GMT (2.11am Singapore time), with walls crumbling and families racing outside their homes.
"The walls of houses have collapsed around me onto the road. All the families are outside in their yards huddled together," an AFP reporter said in Kathmandu.
Another resident recounted scenes of panic and mayhem.
"Everything started shaking. Everything fell down. The walls around the main road have collapsed. The national stadium's gates have collapsed," Anupa Shrestha said.
Police confirmed that the damage had been extensive.
"Our focus is on rescue in the core areas of Kathmandu where the population is concentrated," said metropolitan police spokesman Dinesh Acharya.
"Many houses and buildings have collapsed," he told AFP.
The quake tore through the middle of highways in the capital and also caused damage to the country's only international airport, in a potential blow to relief efforts.
The airport's general manager, Birendra Prasad Shrestha, said it would remain closed "for safety reasons" at least until later in the afternoon.
Kari Cuelenaere, an official at the Dutch embassy, said that the impact had swept the water out of a swimming pool at a Kathmandu hotel where Dutch national was being celebrated.