Rescue workers in eastern Turkey are sifting through rubble of dozens of collapsed buildings after a 7.2-magnitude earthquake rattled the mountainous region on Sunday.

The death toll continued to rise hours after the quake, and Turkish scientists estimated the death toll could rise to 1,000 because of poor housing standards and the strength of the quake.

By early Monday local time, Interior Minister Idris Naim Sahin said that the death toll had risen to more than 200. Hundreds more were injured.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the quake struck eastern Van province, which borders Iran, at about 10:40 a.m. local time. Its epicentre was in the village of Tabanli, near the city of Van.

"We are estimating a death toll between 500 and 1,000," the head of the Kandilli observatory Mustafa Erdik told reporters on Sunday.

Tens of thousands of people streamed into the streets after the quake hit, and survivors began digging into the rubble with their bare hands in search of anyone who may be trapped below.

"My wife and child are inside! My four-month-old baby is inside!" a man shouted in video aired by CNN-Turk television in the provincial capital.

According to a state-run television channel, 59 people were killed and 150 injured in the eastern town of Ercis. Twenty-five other residents reportedly died in the city of Van and at least one death has been recorded in the nearby province of Bitlis.

"The quake was strongly felt in Van and neighbouring towns, and caused damage and deaths based on initial assessments," said a statement from the Turkish Prime Minister's office.

Dozens of buildings collapsed across the province after the massive quake, said the Turkish Red Crescent.

The city of Ercis is thought to be the area hardest hit by the temblor. Up to 80 buildings fell in the municipality, which lies on the Ercis fault line.

The quake also managed to shake buildings in neighbouring Armenia, where people in the capital of Yerevan spilled into the streets in fear that buildings there would collapse too.

CNN reporter Andrew Finkel said the location of the quake may make rescue efforts more treacherous.

"Van (city), of course, is one of the least densely populated parts of Turkey," he told CTV News Channel on Sunday. "It's a very poor part of Turkey."

On the phone from Istanbul, Finkel said he's heard that crews are wading in the rubble of collapsed buildings and have dispatched airborne emergency teams.

"We know that there's going to be a very large presence from both rescue workers and officials," he said.

Residents across the province reportedly fanned out into the streets in a panic after the quake hit. Television footage showed crews picking up debris with shovels and their bare hands, trying to evacuate people believed to be trapped under collapsed buildings.

The situation remains in a state of flux, Van town Mayor Bekir Kaya told a local news station.

"The telephone system is jammed due to panic, and we can't assess the entire damage immediately," Kaya said.

The USGS originally gave the magnitude as 7.3 but later corrected it to 7.2. It said the quake had a depth of 20 kilometres, which is considered quite shallow meaning it may cause more damage.

Turkey is crossed by fault lines, making earthquakes a frequent occurrence.

With files from The Associated Press