The death toll from a strong earthquake that hit central Italy early Monday has risen to 50, Italian TV reported, quoting Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni.

    Over 40 others were reported missing after the quake, which was centered in the Abrusso region, the RAI TV reported earlier, quoting civil protection officials.

    The dead were mainly children the elderly, the report said.

    RAI TV said an elderly woman and a child were killed in a village east of Rome in the Abruzzo region. ANSA said four children died in L`Aquila, the quake`s epicenter, after their houses collapsed.

    Firefighters, volunteers and military personnel were racing against time to search for survivors in collapsed buildings in the quake-hit areas, TV footage showed.

    Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has declared a state of emergency in the country, and cancelled a scheduled visit to Russia, RAI TV reported.

    Not long after the quake hit at 03:32 a.m. local time (0232 GMT), Italian President Giorgio Napolitano and Berlusconi held an urgent meeting to assess the situation.

    The U.S. Geological Survey said the earthquake had a magnitude of 6.3, but Italy`s geophysics authorities put the magnitude at 5.8.

    According to media reports, part of a university dormitory has collapsed in the city of L`Aguila, some 95 km northeast of Rome.

    In L`Aguila, power and gas supplies were cut off, and the expressway between the city and Rome was shut down.

    Thousands of buildings have been damaged by the quake. The dome of a church fell down and the city`s cathedral was also damaged.

    The temblor has caused panic among residents in L`Aguila and sent many of them to flee their houses. It was felt in Rome and much of the country.

    Italian civil protection officials, quoted by Italian media, have warned that thousands of people could be left homeless after the earth movement.

    The quake came just several hours after a 4.6-magnitude tremor hit north-central Italy Sunday night, which left no damage or injuries.