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Quakes rock southern Italy, alarmed people sleeping outdoors

ROME (AP) -- At least nine earthquakes rocked southern Italy in two hours Thursday night, prompting frightened residents to sleep outdoors for safety and a child to hurt himself when he leaped in fear from a balcony.

The jolts damaged balconies, cracked walls and collapsed some uninhabited houses in the Molise region in south-central Italy, just inland from the Adriatic Sea, authorities said.

No injuries were directly blamed on the quake, but civil protection officials told Italian state radio that a young boy was slightly hurt when he leaped from his home's balcony.

But residents "should regain their tranquility as soon as possible because despite the legitimate fright and fear, for now there is just light damage and cracks," Molise Gov. Donato Toma advised. He later said some uninhabited homes had collapsed.

Italy's national seismology agency INGV said in a statement that the strongest quake measured 5.1 and struck at 8:19 p.m. That jolt was followed in rapid succession by eight more tremors, with the strongest measuring at 4.4. In all some 27 quakes, most of them lower than 2.5, rattled the area Thursday.

The epicenter of the quakes was Montecilfone, a small town in Campobasso province.

The biggest jolt was felt in much of Italy's south, including in Rome and Naples on the other side of the boot-shaped peninsula, state radio said.

The temblors also alarmed tourists in beach towns along the Adriatic at the height of Italy's summer holiday season, the Italian news agency ANSA said.

Other less powerful quakes have rattled the Molise area in recent days, reviving sad memories of the magnitude 5.4 quake that hit the Molise town of San Giuliano di Puglia in 2002. In that quake, a public school collapsed, killing 27 persons, including the town's entire first grade class and their teacher.

A criminal court later determined that negligence in building the school was to blame for the collapse and that the quake wouldn't have toppled a properly constructed building.

INGV said the fault line involved in Thursday's quakes was 10 kilometers (6 miles) north of the one involved in the 2002 quake.

It added that the latest quakes occurred in an area "little known from the seismic point of view since there is little documentation of seismic activity" in that specific area of the fault.

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