IBTimes UK

Rescue operations continued in Ecuador after more than 250 people were confirmed dead in the aftermath of the severest earthquake to hit the country in decades.

In the latest update, Vice Minister Diego Fuentes said on Sunday night the death toll from the earthquake rose to 262.

The magnitude 7.8 quake jolted a sparsely populated area 170 kilometers northwest of capital Quito on Saturday evening.

The quake, which was the strongest to hit Ecuador since 1979, left thousands injured while hundreds are reported missing.

Ecuador's President Rafael Correa, who cut short a visit to Italy, declared a national emergency to deal with the crisis.

"Everything can be rebuilt, but lives cannot be recovered, and that's what hurts the most," Correa said, adding that the priority was in finding survivors.

More than 5,000 personnel from the army and the police are engaged in rescue operations while aid agencies have rushed food and essential materials to the quake-hit region.

According to the US Geological Survey, the earthquake struck at a rather shallow depth of 19.2 km about 27km from Muisne.

Experts said the quake was six times as powerful as the tremor that jolted southern Japan on Saturday.

A tourist spot on Pacific coast near the epicentre was flattened by the temblor. "There are people trapped in various places, and we are starting rescue operations," Vice President Jorge Glas said., Reuters reported.

Glas said there is "long list" of missing people but declined to say how many were feared missing.

Vice-Minister Fuentes said rescue teams were trying to pick through rubble looking for survivors and victims.

"Most people are out in the streets with backpacks on, heading for higher ground... The streets are cracked. The power is out and phones are down," a resident from the coastal belt told the agency.

Around $600 million in credit from multilateral lenders was activated immediately after the disastrous quake hit the country whose economy is reeling from the fall in crude prices.