KOTA KINABALU, Malaysia- Malaysian rescuers brought 137 hikers down to safety Saturday after an earthquake had stranded them atop Mount Kinabalu, but reports said at least two people were killed and 16 remained missing.
The 6.0-magnitude quake struck near the picturesque mountain, a popular tourist destination, early Friday, sending landslides and huge granite boulders tumbling down from the 4,095-metre peak's wide, jagged crown.
The quake, one of the strongest in the country in decades, jolted a wide area of the Malaysian state of Sabah on Borneo island, shattering windows, cracking walls, and causing other relatively minor damage.
"The 137 climbers have safely arrived at the Park HQ, the last batch at 2.50 am," Sabah state tourism minister Masidi Manjun said Saturday on his Twitter feed.
The stranded climbers had been stuck on the picturesque mountain for up to 18 hours, their descent blocked by damage to a key trail and the threat of continuing rockfalls.
But Masidi added: "We have a challenging task today searching for those missing," and hours earlier he had confirmed there had been fatalities.
He gave no details on the numbers of dead, injured or missing.
But Malaysian media reports said a local tour guide and a Singaporean female had been killed on the mountain.
The Star newspaper quoted Sabah fire and rescue authorities saying 16 people were missing.
On Friday, Singapore's Education Ministry had said the whereabouts of eight students and two teachers from the country who were part of a school excursion to the mountain remained unknown.
'Rocks raining down fast'
Malaysia's Bernama news agency quoted an elderly couple describing their terror when the quake unleashed a shower of large stones from the rocky peak.
"Rocks were raining down fast, like rock blasting," Lee Yoke Fah, a 60-year-old Malaysian who suffered minor injuries, was quoted saying.
"I am not going to climb again, I am scared." The Kinabalu Today news portal quoted search and rescue personnel saying most on the mountain at the time of the quake were Malaysian but they also included hikers from Singapore, the United States, the Philippines, Britain, Thailand, Turkey, China and Japan.
The US Geological Survey had said the quake's epicentre was east of Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah, and near the mountain.
No major damage was reported but the quake sent residents of the region fleeing in panic from homes and buildings, including Kota Kinabalu's International Airport, according to witnesses.
Authorities have indefinitely halted all climbing on Mount Kinabalu, which looms over a state famed for its rainforests, wild rivers and coral reefs, and is among its central tourism attractions.
Thousands complete the relatively easy climb each year, with most taking two days round-trip.
Most reach the peak at dawn to watch the sunrise, and the summit was busy with climbers when the quake hit at 7.15 am local time.
The force of the tremor was so strong that it snapped off one of the two large "Donkey's Ears", towering twin rock outcroppings that form a distinctive part of the peak's craggy profile, officials said.
Strong earthquakes are rare in Malaysia, which lies just outside the Ring of Fire, the belt of seismic activity running around the Pacific basin.
Mount Kinabalu is sacred to the local Kadazan Dusun tribal group, who consider it a resting place for departed spirits.
Malaysian social media users speculated that the quake was a sign the spirits were angry after a group of 10 apparently Western men and women tourists last weekend snapped nude photos at the summit and uploaded them on to the Internet.