The death toll from a powerful earthquake that devastated six towns in western Argentina yesterday neared 100 today as rescuers continued sifting through the debris of collapsed buildings.

Late reports said 280 people were injured and 10,000 left homeless by the quake, which destroyed 80 per cent of the buildings in the town of Caucete and neighboring villages in San Juan province in the foothills of the Andes.

Caucete looked "like a city that had been bombed with determination and many times," an Argentine reporter wrote from the scene.

A middle-aged woman standing in front of the ruins of the house in which she had lived with her mother, husband and daughter, said: "At first I thought I was dizzy, but all of a sudden everything became confused. I don't remember how I returned home but when I saw it I thought that my daughter had died.

"But my mother threw her out a back window," the woman said. "My mother and God saved her for me."

Fresh tremors, described by experts as the normal aftermath of the quake "while the earth crust settles in," continued in the area today.

Following a dusk-to-dawn curfew in the Caucete area to prevent looting, efforts were concentrated today on restoring light and water services and repairing damaged highways and bridges.

Air Force helicopters, ambulances, buses and private cars were used to ferry the wounded to San Juan city, the provincial capital, 18 miles west of Caucete, which was rebuilt after an earthquake that killed 5,000 people in 1944.

The quake, which according to a Swedish seismological institute had a force of 8.2 on the open-ended Richter scale, seriously damaged roads and railways in the San Juan area.

The quake was felt in most Argentine cities and in parts of Bolivia, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay.

In La Rioja, north of San Juan, a witness said people fled houses in panic as church bells began tolling wildly, their steeples rocked by the quake.

"We thought it was doomsday," he said.

Thousands of people rushed to the streets in nightclothes as the quake rocked this capital city of 8 million people. Many refused to return to their high-rise apartments for more than two hours for fear of recurrent tremors.