New Zealand hit by strong quake of magnitude 6.9

Search crew members look through the rubble of the CTV building which was devastated by a 6.3 magnitude earthquake in central Christchurch February 23, 2011.

WELLINGTON - A strong 6.9-magnitude earthquake struck off New Zealand Sunday, jolting the nation's capital but no tsunami alert was issued and there were no immediate reports of damage.

The quake hit at 5:09 pm (0509 GMT) 57 kilometres (36 miles) south-southwest of Wellington at a depth of 10.1 kilometres, the US Geological Survey said.

It was followed minutes later by another quake of 5.5 magnitude and came about 10 hours after a 5.8 tremor in the same region which has been hit by multiple quakes in recent days.

New Zealand's GeoNet earthquake monitoring service described the 6.9 tremor which was felt widely as "severe".

"There was a rocking and rattling which lasted about 30 seconds," a resident in the resort town of Nelson told AFP.

Recent quakes have been centred about 200 kilometres north of New Zealand's second largest city Christchurch, where a 6.3-magnitude quake in February 2011 toppled buildings onto lunchtime crowds, leaving 185 people dead.

The country sits on the so-called "Ring of Fire", the boundary of the Australian and Pacific tectonic plates, and experiences up to 15,000 tremors a year. The fire service received multiple calls to assist people trapped in elevators in Wellington and the tremor also set off sprinklers in city buildings and cut electricity supplies in many areas.

There were also reports of a shop roof collapsing, while masonry fell from some properties, cinemas were evacuated and stock tumbled from supermarket shelves.

Wellington Civil Defence Controller, Bruce Pepperell, said there had been reports of structural damage to a number of buildings around the city but no widespread damage.

"At the moment we have had only one report of an injury around the region," he said.

"While some buildings are damaged and have been evacuated, the city and region has by no means ground to a halt."

Authorities said Wellington Airport has been closed temporarily while safety checks are carried out and the region's rail network had also been closed while checks were done on bridges, tunnels and other structures.

Police have closed sections of the central business district while checks were being carried out.

Seismologist Anna Kaiser told the New Zealand Herald that earthquakes of this magnitude were not unusual in the region.

"When we get one of these events there will be increased seismicity in the region and there's always the possibility of a larger event but it's unlikely."

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre said earthquakes of such magnitude can generate local tsunamis but there was no threat of a "destructive widespread tsunami".

New Zealand's civil defence authorities said it was "unlikely to have caused a tsunami that will pose a threat to New Zealand".

Recent quakes have been centred about 200 kilometres north of New Zealand's second largest city Christchurch, where a 6.3-magnitude quake in February 2011 toppled buildings. That disaster left 185 people dead.

The country sits on the so-called "Ring of Fire", the boundary of the Australian and Pacific tectonic plates, and experiences up to 15,000 tremors a year.