YANGON A powerful earthquake shook central Myanmar on Wednesday, killing at least three people including two children, and damaging scores of centuries-old Buddhist pagodas around the ancient capital of Bagan.
The 6.8 magnitude quake shook buildings across the Southeast Asian country, with tremors felt as far away as Thailand - where witnesses reported high rise towers swaying in Bangkok - Bangladesh and eastern India.
"We felt quite heavy shaking for about 10 seconds and started to evacuate the building when there was another strong tremor," said Vincent Panzani of charity Save the Children.
He spoke from Pakkoku, a small town about 25 km (15 miles) northeast of Bagan, the centrepiece of Myanmar's rapidly expanding tourism industry.
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) said the quake struck near the town of Chauk, on the Ayeyarwaddy River south of Bagan and about 175 km (110 miles) southwest of the country's second city Mandalay, just after 5 p.m. (1030 GMT).
Fire department and Red Cross officials said two children were killed in the small town of Yenanchaung, south of Chauk.
"Two young girls died when a pagoda collapsed on a river bank," said Moe Thidar Win, deputy director of the disaster management team at the Myanmar Red Cross Society.
"One man died in a Pakokku tobacco factory when the roof collapsed on him."
In Bagan, known as the "City of 4 Million Pagodas", one female tourist was injured at a pagoda, said local official Khin Mya Lwin.
The Ministry of Information said nearly 100 of Bagan's famed pagodas, mostly built between the 11th and 13th centuries, had been damaged.
Bagan has around 2,000-3,000 pagodas and temples, spread over a 42-sq km plain ringed by mist-covered mountains. It rivals Cambodia's Angkor Wat and Borobudur in Indonesia as Asia's premier archaeological site.
SCENES OF PANIC
Elsewhere, damage appeared to have been relatively light, although reports were still filtering through as night fell.
"My house shook during the quake. Many people were scared and they ran out of the buildings," said Maung Maung Kyaw, a local official of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party in Chauk.
"Some of the old buildings have cracks. The biggest damage is to the bank building in the town."
The quake struck at a relatively deep 84 km (52 miles), the USGS said.
"Most of the reports of damage have been to the pagodas in the area, with dozens impacted, particularly around Bagan," said Save the Children's Panzani in Pakkoku.
"There have also been reports of damage to smaller, more basic buildings... Several of our staff who've lived in this part of Myanmar their whole lives said it was the strongest earthquake they've ever felt."
The quake shook buildings in Myanmar's biggest city, Yangon, and in other towns and cities, witnesses said.
Office buildings in the Thai capital Bangkok, to the east of Myanmar, shook for a few seconds, residents there said.
The quake was also felt in Bangladesh, to the west of Myanmar, where some people ran out into the street as buildings shook, residents said.
Myanmar is in a seismically active part of the world where the Indo-Australian Plate runs up against the Eurasian Plate.
In March, 2011, at least 74 people were killed in an earthquake near its borders with Thailand and Laos.
More than half of Bagan's pagodas were seriously damaged in a July 1975 earthquake that sent the landmark Buphaya Pagoda tumbling into the Ayeyarwaddy.
(Reporting by Yangon and Bangkok bureaus; Writing by Robert Birsel and Antoni Slodkowski; Editing by Alex Richardson and John Stonestreet)