The most powerful earthquake to strike the country in decades shakes the capital Tirana and the country's west and north, tearing down buildings and burying residents under rubble.

Emergency personnel work at the site of the collapsed building in Durres after an earthquake shook Albania, November 26, 2019.
Emergency personnel work at the site of the collapsed building in Durres after an earthquake shook Albania, November 26, 2019. (Reuters)

Albanian rescuers were digging through rubble in search of survivors on Tuesday after the strongest earthquake in decades levelled buildings and trapped victims under the debris, claiming at least 21 lives and injuring more than 600 people.

The 6.4 magnitude quake struck at 0254GMT, with an epicentre 34 kilometres northwest of the capital, Tirana, in the Adriatic Sea, according to the European-Mediterranean Seismological Centre.

Health Minister Ogerta Manastirliu said more than 600 people had been treated for injuries, including nine hospitalised with life-threatening injuries.

"It is a dramatic moment where we should preserve calm, (and) stay alongside each other to cope with this shock," Prime Minister Edi Rama said.

The Balkan country was jolted by 100 aftershocks after the main tremor, two of them of magnitude 5, testing strained nerves.

The government declared an official day of mourning for Wednesday, with Albanian flags on official buildings to fly at half-staff. Schools would remain closed until Monday, as Thursday and Friday were national holidays. The country's soccer federation announced all matches would be cancelled for the rest of the week.

Journalist Klaudja Karabolli has more on the rescue efforts in the region.

About 400 soldiers are putting up tents in two towns to shelter people with damaged houses.

Live TV footage showed people cheering when a child was found alive in a collapsed building in the town of Durres where a body had been found earlier.

The worst-hit areas were Durres, where 11 of the dead were found in collapsed buildings, and the northern town of Thumane, where another five bodies were pulled from the rubble, the defence ministry said. In total at least three hotels, a residential villa and an apartment building collapsed in Durres, and one apartment building in Thumane.

One person died after jumping from his home to escape in Kurbin, 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of the capital, while another person was killed on a road that collapsed in the northern town of Lezha.

"Search and rescue work continues at all sites where buildings have collapsed," Defence Minister Xhacka said in a televised statement. "But these are extremely difficult operations, where you have to work slowly because there is a high risk of further collapse, endangering not only residents, but also those trapped, and the rescuers themselves."

Journalist and survivor Olsi Jazexhi has more from Tirana.

'Don't know if they're dead' 

In Thumane, soldiers, rescuers and families sifted through the rubble of a collapsed five-storey building, with relatives shouting the names of their loved ones: "Mira", "Ariela", "Selvije".

The cries of people trapped inside could be heard as the search was under way, according to reporters.

Thoma Nika, a 58-year-old who lived in the building, said he believed there were at least six people buried under rubble.

Dulejman Kolaveri, a man in his 50s, said he feared his 70-year-old mother and six-year-old niece were trapped, as they lived on the fifth floor of the building.

"I don't know if they are dead or alive," he said with trembling hands.

"I'm afraid of their fate... only God knows."

Arben Allushi, another Thumane local, said with tears in his eyes that his wife and niece were in the building when it fell.

'Trapped under the rubble' 

Some 300 soldiers have been sent to Durres and Thumane, where "there are people trapped under the rubble", defence ministry spokeswoman Qahajaj said.

About 1,900 police officers have also been deployed to help.

A man in Durres told local television that his daughter and niece were trapped in the rubble of an apartment building.

"I talked with my daughter and niece on the phone. They said they are well and are waiting for the rescue. I could not talk to my wife. There are other families, but I could not talk to them," the man said.

Strongest quake since 1926' 

Tuesday's quake was the strongest to hit the Durres region since 1926, seismologist Rrapo Ormeni told local television.

The tremors were felt across the Balkans, from Sarajevo in Bosnia to the Serbian city of Novi Sad almost 700 kilometres away, according to reports in local media and on social networks.

The quake was followed by several aftershocks, including one of 5.3 magnitude, the European-Mediterranean Seismological Centre said. Albanian authorities described it as the strongest earthquake in the last 20 to 30 years.

The Balkans is an area prone to seismic activity and earthquakes there are frequent.

Help offered 

PM Rama said neighboring countries, the European Union and the United States had offered help. By Tuesday evening, rescue teams from neighboring Kosovo, Montenegro, Italy, Greece and Romania had arrived.

Serbia, North Macedonia, Croatia, Hungary, Germany, France, Estonia, Turkey, and the Czech Republic also offered help, while the EU delegation to Albania said additional EU assets were on standby should they be needed.

"My thoughts are with the victims and all the people affected by the disaster," EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management Christos Stylianides said.

The United Nations said it is sending two technical experts from the UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination office to Albania following the earthquake.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies