QUITO: Ecuador's strongest earthquake in decades, a 7.8 magnitude tremor, struck off the Pacific coast on Saturday, killing at least 28 people and causing "considerable damage" near the epicenter as well as in the largest city of Guayaquil.
The Andean nation's government recommended people leave coastal areas over concern for rising tides.
Alarmed residents streamed into the streets of the highland capital Quito, hundreds of kilometres (miles) away, and other towns across the nation.
"Based on preliminary information, there are 16 people dead in the city of Portoviejo, 10 in Manta and two in the province of Guayas," said Vice President Jorge Glas in a televised address.
The country's Geophysics Institute in a bulletin described "considerable damage" in western coastal areas nearest the quake and in Guayaquil, without providing further details.
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The quake struck at around 8:00 p.m. (0100 GMT) at a depth of 20 km (12.4 miles).
President Rafael Correa cut short a trip to Italy to return home, urging Ecuadoreans via Twitter to keep their spirits up.
Guayaquil's mayor Jaime Nebot, who was traveling in Spain, said on his Facebook page he would coordinate recovery operations from where he was.
Official details on the damage to Guayaquil, a frequent departure point for foreign tourists visiting the Galapagos islands made famous by Charles Darwin, were slow to emerge.
Social media pictures showed a collapsed bridge in the city and minor damage to the lobby of a hotel, as well as images of a collapsed air traffic control tower at an airport in the city of Manta.
"I was in my house watching a movie and everything started to shake. I ran out into the street and now I don't know what's going to happen," said Lorena Cazares, 36, a telecommunications worker in Quito.
Parts of the capital were without power or telephone service, with many communicating only via Whatsapp. Photos on social media showed cracks in the walls of shopping centers.
The capital's municipal government later said power had been restored and there were no reports of casualties in the city.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said tsunami waves reaching 0.3 to 1 meter (one to three feet) above tide level were possible for some coastal areas of Ecuador.
State officials said the OPEC nation's oil production was not affected by the quake but that the principal refinery of Esmeraldas, located near the epicenter, had been halted as a precaution.
"At first it was light, but it lasted a long time and got stronger," said Maria Jaramillo, 36, a resident of Guayaquil, describing windows breaking and pieces falling off roofs.
"I was on the seventh floor and the light went off in the whole sector, and we evacuated. People were very anxious in the street ... We left barefoot."
Across the Pacific in Japan, a 7.3 magnitude tremor struck Kumamoto province early Saturday, killing at least 32 people, injuring about a thousand and causing widespread damage, in the second major quake to hit the island of Kyushu in just over 24 hours. The first, late on Thursday, killed nine.