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OSH, Kyrgyzstan (Reuters) - A powerful earthquake struck Central Asia's densely populated Ferghana valley on Wednesday, shaking houses and sending residents of several Uzbek and Kyrgyz cities onto the streets in panic.
There were no immediate reports of casualties, although local residents on either side of the border between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan reported prolonged, violent shaking in the early hours of the morning that cracked the walls of their homes.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the magnitude 6.1 earthquake had its epicenter 18 km (11 miles) underground some 42 km (26 miles)southwest of Ferghana, a city in the east of Uzbekistan close to the Kyrgyz border.
"Everybody was afraid. Everything was shaking," Dilaffrus Muminova, a Ferghana resident, told Reuters by telephone. "It lasted two or three minutes, if not more."
The Ferghana Valley is the most densely populated part of Central Asia, a strategic but earthquake-prone region between Russia, China and Afghanistan.
The valley is a patchwork of Soviet-era borders that cut across nationalities, leaving it prone to periodic bouts of ethnic violence. Widespread poverty has also contributed to a growing trend of radical Islam in the region.
In June 2010, more than 400 people were killed in June 2010 during several days of clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in and around Osh, the largest city in southern Kyrgyzstan. At the height of the violence, about 400,000 people fled their homes.
"God is punishing us for what we are doing," said Ismat, a resident of the Kyrgyz city of Batken, close to the Uzbek border. He declined to give his second name.
He said cracks were visible in the walls of the city's houses, although he had not seen any buildings collapse. "People were on the streets all night. There was a lot of panic."
The Ferghana Valley is a major center of cotton and silk production, and the hills above are covered by walnut forests.
Another native of Ferghana, who lives in Kazakhstan, said residents of her home city had been woken by strong shaking at about 0130 local time (1930 GMT). Most people evacuated their apartment blocks and spent the night on the streets.
She told Reuters, after speaking to Ferghana residents by telephone, that people had reported a loud noise before their houses were jolted.
Local residents also reported the destruction of low-rise housing in the nearby town of Margilan, a silk production center. "It's an old town and some of the old houses have been destroyed," she said, requesting anonymity.
Independent news agency www.uznews.net quoted an unnamed resident of Uzbek town of Khamza as saying the local hospital did not have enough room to accommodate the wounded.
Kyrgyzstan's Emergencies Ministry had dispatched a team to the region to investigate damage, said Sultanbek Mamatov, a spokesman for the ministry. Damage to an electricity sub-station had cut off power to several small towns and villages, he said.
Kadamjay, a Kyrgyz town close to the epicenter, was one of the towns affected. Local resident Seitmurad Kozhoyev said by telephone that windows had been shattered and at least one multi-storey apartment block had been badly damaged.
Abdulamid Borbiyev, a 42-year-old businessman from a nearby village, said he knew of no local victims but that he had seen a lot of damage to buildings.
In 2008, a powerful earthquake killed more than 70 people in Kyrgyzstan. In 1966, the Uzbek capital Tashkent was flattened by a 7.5 earthquake that left hundreds of thousands of people homeless.
Wednesday's quake was also felt in Tashkent, although there were no reports of serious damage. "Everyone got a bit of a scare," said an expatriate resident of the Uzbek capital.
Additional reporting and writing by Robin Paxton in Almaty; Editing by Jon Boyle