Students and teachers stand outside a highschool after it was evacuated following three earthquakes which hit central Italy in the space of an hour, shaking the same region that suffered a series of deadly quakes last year, in Rome, Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2017 (Photo: AP)
Three earthquakes hit central Italy Wednesday in a stinging triple-punch that brought fresh terror to an area still reeling from deadly quakes last year and struggling to cope with heavy snowfall.
Monitors said the first quake, which struck at 10:25 am (0925 GMT) was around 5.3 magnitude. A second, some 50 minutes later, was put at 5.7 magnitude by the European Mediterranean Seismological Centre (EMSC) and was quickly followed by a third, measured at 5.5.
The tremors were felt across the Abruzzo, Lazio and Marche regions and also in Rome, over 100 kilometres (60 miles) away.
Train services on some mainlines and the Rome underground were suspended on safety grounds. The Italian foreign ministry building and some schools in the capital were evacuated.
Those schools that were not already closed due to snow in towns and villages closer to the affected area were also evacuated.
Emergency services mobilised helicopters to check the impact of the quakes and the national civil protection agency was assessing the damage in villages closest to the epicentre.
There were no immediate reports of building collapses but residents of the city of Aquila, where over 300 people died in a 2009 earthquake, rushed into the snow-covered streets in scenes of panic.
The epicentres of the quakes were pinpointed in an area close to Amatrice, the mountain town devastated by the first of the earthquakes which struck the mountainous centre of the country between August and October last year.
Nearly 300 people died in that 6.0 magnitude quake, most of them in or close to Amatrice, a beauty spot which was packed with holiday makers at the height of the summer season.
Two further quakes rattled the region in October, with the most powerful measuring 6.5 magnitude.
The latest quake came in the wake of 36 hours of continuous snowfall in areas close to Amatrice and another badly-hit mountain town, Norcia.
Amatrice mayor Sergio Pirozzi cursed his town's bad luck.
"I don't know if we did something bad. That's what I have been asking since yesterday. We have got up to two metres of snow and now another earthquake. What can I say? I have no words."
Stefano Petrucci, mayor of nearby Accumoli, described the situation as "dramatic."
"The roads are unpassable because of the snow and we have hardly any trucks available to clear them, some of them are broken down. We can't fight a war with bows and arrows."
As a result of last year's quakes many residents have been evacuated to temporary accommodation outside the earthquake-prone zone.
The last of 2016's major quakes, which struck on October 30, was the most powerful since a 6.9 magnitude one struck near Naples in southern Italy in 1980, leaving 3,000 people dead.
The October quakes did not directly result in any deaths but thousands were left homeless and scores of historic buildings suffered serious damage, much of it irreperable.
Italy has long been accustomed to dealing with earthquakes and the Amatrice disaster in particular led to questions being asked as to why so many buildings had not been upgraded to ensure they did not pose a threat to life in the event of predictable tremors.
Much of Italy's land mass and some of its surrounding waters are prone to seismic activity with the highest risk concentrated along its mountainous central spine.
Italy straddles the Eurasian and African tectonic plates, making it vulnerable to seismic activity when they move.
The worst disaster of recent times was the 1980 one near Naples. The worst of the 20th Century was in 1908 when an estimated 95,000 died in tidal waves following a quake centred in the waters between mainland Italy and Sicily.