TEHRAN  – A powerful 6.1 magnitude earthquake that hit southern Iran on Tuesday killed ‘at least 20 people,’ the official IRNA news agency reported, quoting a local health official.

“At least 20 bodies have been taken to the morgue” in the city of Khormoj, an unnamed hospital official told IRNA. Khormoj, east of provincial capital Bushehr, is some 35 kilometres from the quake’s epicenter at Kaki. The Gulf port city of Bushehr is home to Iran’s only nuclear power plant. Shocks from the quake were felt across the Gulf in Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, provoking panic in some office towers, witnesses reported.

The epicentre was in the Kaki area, nearly 90 kilometres southeast of Bushehr, seismologists said.

The quake struck at 4:22 pm (1152 GMT) at a depth of 12 kilometres, the Iran Seismological Centre said. The US Geological Survey, which monitors quakes worldwide, ranked the quake at a more powerful 6.3 magnitude. Iran’s nuclear power plant in Bushehr was undamaged by the strong quake, its governor Fereydoon Hasanvand said. “No damage at all has been caused” to the plant, he told state television. Iranian media said search and rescue teams had been dispatched to the area. Telephone connections were cut.

The seismological centre reported six aftershocks, the strongest at 5.3 magnitude. Speaking to the ISNA news agency, the head of Iran’s Red Crescent rescue corps, Mahmoud Mozafar, said there was a possibility of “damage,” considering the rural nature of the stricken area, home to some 12,000 inhabitants. He did not elaborate.

Iran sits astride several major fault lines and is prone to frequent earthquakes, some of which have been devastating. Twin quakes, one measuring 6.2 and the other 6.0, struck northwestern Iran in August last year, killing more than 300 people and injuring 3,000.

In December 2010, a large quake struck the southern city of Bam. It killed 31,000 people - about a quarter of the city’s population - and destroyed its ancient mud-built citadel.