ROME - A series of strong earthquakes hit snowbound central Italy on Wednesday, killing one man and forcing schools and rail links to close.
Four quakes of magnitude 5.2 and higher struck near the hill town of Amatrice, 100 kilometers (60 miles) northeast of Rome, within four hours. The same region was devastated by deadly tremors last year, and much of the area had been abandoned since then.
The central Lazio, Marche and Abruzzo regions have been grappling with heavy snowfall, and one man aged about 82 died after the snow and one of the tremors caused the roof of a farm building to fall on him, a fire service spokesman said.
Some other abandoned buildings collapsed, but no other deaths or serious injuries were reported, the spokesman said.
Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni said soldiers would help rescue teams get to the affected villages. "This repetition of strong quakes is alarming for people who have already been so sorely tried," he said in Berlin.
A woman and her baby son were pulled out from rubble, suffering from hypothermia, in the small town of Castiglione Messer Raimondo, the fire service said. A helicopter sent to take them to hospital ran into difficulty, and they had to be transported by road.
"Some areas have no electricity because of the snow, so even cellphones don't work," said Sante Stragoni, mayor of Acquasanta Terme, a town hit hard by a quake on August 24 that killed 300 people. "The snow is 2 metres (6 feet) deep in some areas," he told SkyTG 24 television.
Residents near the epicentre of the quakes rushed into the streets and fields.
"Everyone is outside. It's very cold and windy," said Lina Mercantini, in the tiny village of Ceselli in Umbria. "It's never-ending. We are all shaking."
In Rome, buildings wobbled and the underground metro system was shut for several hours. Schoolchildren were sent home, and museums told visitors to leave.
Risk remains high
The U.S. Geological Survey said the three strongest earthquakes, with magnitudes of 5.3, 5.7 and 5.6, all struck in the space of an hour.
Gianluca Valsensise, a seismologist at Italy's National Institute for Geophysics and Vulcanology (INGV), said the risk of another quake of similar size in the area was high.
Wednesday's quakes could have come as one single event of magnitude 6 or higher, Valensise said. "The Earth's crust has for some reason decided to break up in smaller pieces," he said.
In all, there were 10 quakes over magnitude 4.0 clustered in a 10-kilometer radius around the town of Amatrice, which was devastated by last August's tremor, and dozens of weaker ones. The belltower of the town's Sant'Agostino church, which had been badly damaged in August, finally collapsed.
The Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels in nearby Assisi was closed for the day as a precaution.
The August 24 quake destroyed thousands of homes and businesses. More than 45,000 aftershocks have since rattled the region, including a 6.6 magnitude quake in October, the biggest tremor to strike Italy in 36 years.
Last year's quakes reshaped more than 600 square kilometers (230 square miles) of land, lowering areas around the epicenter by up to 70 centimeters (28 inches), according to the INGV.