(Reuters) - A strong earthquake rocked a large swathe of northern Italy early on Sunday morning, causing at least three deaths and collapsing rural factories and ancient bell towers in towns.
The epicenter of the quake, which struck at 4:04 a.m. (0204 GMT) and had a magnitude of 5.9, was in the plains near Modena. But it was felt in nearby regions.
One person working a night shift died in the collapse of a factory and two others were killed in the collapse of another building. Rescue officials were checking reports that other people were buried under rubble.
First television pictures taken after dawn showed serious damage to historic buildings and rural structures. Parts of a historic fortress in one town collapsed.
Thousands of people in the area rushed into the streets after the quake, felt in the major towns of Bologna, Modena, Ferrara, Rovigo, Verona and Mantua.
A series of strong aftershocks hit the area and local mayors ordered residents to stay out of their homes.
The quake was centered 22 miles north-northwest of Bologna at a relatively shallow depth of 6.3 miles, the U.S. Geological Survey said.
The last major earthquake to hit Italy was a 6.3 magnitude quake in the central Italian city of L'Aquila in 2009, killing nearly 300 people.