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New Zealand Prime Minister John Key confirmed at least 65 people dead after a major earthquake threw the city of Christchurch into chaos.
As the South Island city strained to meet challenges from the disaster, Mr Key said the death toll may rise.
Thousands of shocked people wandered the rubble-strewn city, many searching for loved ones and trying to reach others trapped under masonry and brickwork.
Television showed bodies being pulled out of rubble strewn around the city centre, while other footage showed onlookers clinging to each other and others bleeding and limping.
Screams rang out across the southern New Zealand city's main square as parts of Christchurch Cathedral toppled to the ground.
Collapse"I was in the square right outside the cathedral - the whole front has fallen down and there were people running from there," said camera technician John Gurr. "There were people inside as well."
Other major developments are:
Second major quake to hit city in five months;
Extensive damage in city, power cuts;
City has run out of ambulances;
Buses were crushed by falling buildings;
5.6-magnitude aftershocks recorded;
A level-3 emergency has been declared;
Australians concerned for friends can contact the Foreign Affairs Department on 1300 555 135.
Police said the Christchurch central city was being evacuated. Two buses were crushed by falling buildings and a local youth hostel imploded.
Hospitals across the South Island are clearing patients to make room for the injured.
Christchurch Hospital is in operation and three triage centres have been set up in central city, Sydenham and Papanui.
The strongest tremor, which was measured at a magnitude of 6.3, struck at a shallow depth of just four kilometres, at 12.51pm local time.
There had been two smaller tremors in the morning, and in the hours that followed there were 12 aftershocks, measuring up to 5.9 in magnitude.
SecondIt is the second major quake to hit the city in six months.
Live television pictures show several collapsed multi-storey buildings, while several were on fire.
Among those badly damaged include the Provincial Chambers building, the Press newspaper office and part of the CTV building.
Rescue teams roamed the streets using sniffer dogs to locate survivors and bodies.
Australians concerned about the wellbeing of friends and relatives have been urged to first try to make contact with them directly.
Up to 30 people are believed to be trapped in the Pyne Gould building, where four storeys appeared pancaked on top of each other.
One woman was trapped on the top level of the building before being rescued by a crane.
Jeff McLay told TV NZ he was trapped with four other people when the floors of the multi-level Pyne Gould Guinness pancaked on each other.
About 200 people were working in the office block, although some may have left the building for lunch at the time the quake hit.
Mr McLay says the group sheltered in a space near a column which had compressed from three metres in height to about 1.5 metres.
"We were all thrown to the ground. When that happened, I thought, well, this is it," he said.
Rescues were under way in many other buildings.
People gathered in the middle of parks across the city, seeking safety from the danger of aftershocks and comfort in the company of others.
Roads across Christchurch are buckled and ground water is flowing across streets.
Civil defence and emergency management minister John Carter says authorities are working quickly to respond to the overwhelming need for help.
"Obviously we will give all the support that is needed. We will have all the agencies functioning," he said.
"We will be able to provide those from around the country to support and to fill those gaps, but immediately people need to make sure they are safe.
"They need to make sure their families are safe, that their neighbours - particularly elderly neighbours are safe."