A powerful earthquake that struck Italy's mountainous central region early Monday as residents slept has killed more than 150 people, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi confirmed.

The Italian leader provided the updated late Monday night as he spoke by telephone with a TV program that airs on one of the networks he owns.

At least 1,500 have been injured and tens of thousands left homeless in the country's deadliest quake in nearly 30 years.

The quake struck at 3:32 a.m. local time and was a magnitude 6.3, according to the U.S. Geological Survey although Italy's National Institute of Geophysics recorded it at 5.8.

The earthquake's epicentre was about 110 kilometres northeast of Rome, near the medieval city of L'Aquila, located in a quake-prone region that has felt at least nine smaller jolts since the start of April.

Ambulances continued to wail through L'Aquila on Monday as firefighters with dogs and a crane worked feverishly to reach people trapped in collapsed structures.

The newspaper Corriere Della Sera reported late Monday that more than 250 people were still missing.

Berlusconi flew to the region and warned that more temblors were possible.

Reuters reporter Gavin Jones said Berlusconi was asked about an Italian scientist, Giampaolo Giuliani, who had been warning of an impending earthquake prior to Monday's disaster.

Berlusconi was accused of not taking Giuliani's claims seriously.

"(Berlusconi) basically said first let's concentrate on the relief effort and talk about the predictability or otherwise of earthquakes afterwards," Jones told CTV Newsnet on Monday from Rome.

Giuliani had reportedly told locals to evacuate their houses and had posted a YouTube video in which he said radon gas build-up suggested an earthquake was imminent.

Instead of being taken seriously, Giuliani was reported to police for scaremongering.

"There is no possibility of making any predictions on earthquakes. This is a fact in the world's scientific community," Civil protection chief Guido Bertolaso told reporters Monday.

Another official said between 10,000 and 15,000 buildings were damaged by the earthquake.

At a dormitory in L'Aquila, rescue workers searched for at least six missing students after the building partially collapsed.

Outside the dorm, students huddled together to comfort each other and stay warm.

"We managed to come down with other students but we had to sneak through a hole in the stairs as the whole floor came down," student Luigi Alfonsi, 22, told The Associated Press.

"I was in bed -- it was like it would never end as I heard pieces of the building collapse around me."

L'Aquila Mayor Massimo Cialente said some 100,000 people were forced to leave their homes following the quake.

Officials were also forced to evacuate parts of the hospital in L'Aquila, fearing it too could collapse.

As a result, wounded victims had to be taken to other hospitals or were treated in the open air.

Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon released a statement saying that it does not appear that any Canadians have been injured or killed.

In an email statement, Cannon said he was "deeply saddened to learn of the devastation and loss of life" caused by the earthquake.

"On behalf of the government and people of Canada, I extend our sincerest sympathies to those who have lost their loved ones in this tragedy."

L'Aquila is surrounded by the Apennine mountains and is the regional capital of the Abruzzo region, with about 70,000 inhabitants.

In the nearby town of Paganica, ABC reporter Miguel Marquez said as much as 70 per cent of homes have been reduced to some form of rubble.

Berlusconi declared a state of emergency Monday, freeing up federal funds to pay for the rescue effort.

In Rome, journalist Megan Williams said she was suddenly woken up by the "strong, violent jerks" in her apartment.

"I sat up and I noticed that all the closets and cupboards were shaking, the floor was shaking," Williams told CTV's Canada AM on Monday. "I got out of bed and checked on my kids, their beds were shaking but they were okay."

The earthquake has taken a toll on L'Aquila's renowned architectural heritage, which was built during the Middle Ages as a mountain stronghold and boasts several Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance buildings.

Parts of many ancient churches and castles in and around the city have collapsed while damage to ancient structures has been reported as far as Rome.

This was Italy's deadliest quake since Nov. 23, 1980, when one of 6.9-magnitude struck southern regions, flattening villages and killing some 3,000.

With files from The Associated Press