Blue-masked soldiers sweating under the noon sun struggled today to lift boulders toppled into the streets of the Mexican colonial city of Puebla by a powerful earthquake.

The death toll from Tuesday's quake rose to 17 and officials fear the numbers will increase.

The quake, which measured 6.7 on the Richter scale, brought down church towers and damaged other colonial-era buildings for which Puebla, a city of 1.2 million people, is famed. The sound of shovels hitting stone echoed through the streets today.

President Ernesto Zedillo declared the state a disaster area after the earthquake, which injured hundreds of people and forced some 4,000 people from their homes.

"It felt very strong. It was a jumping movement," said Raimundo Villas, 20, an industrial engineer, who described how a chunk of falling cornice crushed one man here in Puebla, 60 miles east of Mexico City.

Mexico's National Seismological Service said the earthquake was centered near Huajuapan de Leon, 80 miles south of Puebla. The U.S. Geological Survey calculated the epicenter at 70 miles southeast of here, near the city of Tehuacan. "I believe we have been relatively lucky, although we always must regret losses," Zedillo said late Tuesday outside the San Agustin church in Puebla. The church's tower collapsed in the quake.

Mexico City, where two people died, had relatively little damage, but tall buildings swayed with the quake, sending tens of thousands of panicking people into the streets. Telephone service and power were disrupted in some areas.

The Puebla state government reported today that at least 12 people died in the state. Veracruz state officials said a workman was killed in a rockslide in Huatuzco. One person died in the western state of Guerrero, the Interior Ministry reported. The death of a 17th victim was confirmed late Wednesday, but no other details were available.

Hundreds of troops patrolled streets strewn with rubble and glass early today.

On the city's main square, a backhoe roared in and out of the centuries-old city hall late Tuesday, filling trucks with debris from interior ceilings that collapsed. Four people were rescued from the building.

"We believe, we hope, that there is no one in there," said city manager Pericles Olivares.

Alejandro Soto, director of the Puebla Red Cross, said 200 people suffered at least minor injuries and 10 were seriously hurt.

Hector Gonzalez, civil defense director of Huajuapan de Leon, a city of 200,000 people, said the quake knocked out electricity and telephone service, but no injuries or major damage were reported.

In Cuernavaca, 35 miles south of Mexico City, a 16th-century cathedral cupola partially collapsed, but officials reported no injuries.

In Teposcolula, the city hall partially collapsed, two houses fell and the main church was damaged, said Sergio Hampshire, the civil defense director for Oaxaca state. There were no reports of injuries.