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An Italian scientist, Giampaolo Giuliani, predicted the earthquake which has killed at least 90 people in the Abruzzo region but he was reported to the police for scaremongering, it has emerged.

Mr Giuliani told locals to evacuate their houses and posted a video on YouTube in which he said a build-up of radon gas around the seismically active area suggested a major earthquake was imminent.

Several tremors had been felt in the medieval city of L'Aquila, around 60 miles east of Rome, from mid-January onwards, and vans with loudspeakers had driven around the city spreading the warning.

But instead of heeding Mr Giuliani's warnings, the local authorities reported him to police for "spreading alarm" and he was told to remove his findings from the internet.

The predicted earthquake hit L'Aquila at 3.32am local time today, killing at least 90 people and leaving up to 50,000 homeless.

Rescuers are desperately searching through the rubble for trapped survivors of the 6.3 magnitude tremor, which destroyed countless buildings in L'Aquila and neighbouring villages.

Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, has declared a state of emergency.

In the village of Onna, around five miles from L'Aquila, at least 12 people were killed out of a total population of 300, with police anticipating a rising death toll as the search of ruined buildings continued.

A makeshift open-air morgue was set up in the shade of a tree in a field beside the village, with 10 bodies laid out on wooden pallets until undertakers could get coffins to the scene.

Father Mauro Orru, the local priest in Onna, told the Telegraph: "The heavens fell in. It was like the end of the world. I ran into the street in my pyjamas; everything in the house was crashing down - books, crockery, everything was on the floor and the furniture was moving."

Latest estimates suggest between 10,000 and 15,000 buildings have been destroyed or damaged beyond repair in the region.

But the local authorities are already facing serious questions over why they gagged Mr Guiliani rather than taking his findings seriously.

Italy's Civil Protection agency held a meeting of the Major Risks Committee, grouping scientists charged with assessing such risks, in L'Aquila on March 31 to reassure the townspeople.

"The tremors being felt by the population are part of a typical sequence ... (which is) absolutely normal in a seismic area like the one around L'Aquila," the civil protection agency said in a statement on the eve of that meeting.

"It is useful to underline that it is not in any way possible to predict an earthquake," it said, adding that the agency saw no reason for alarm but was nonetheless effecting "continuous monitoring and attention".

Even after the devastating earthquake, the head of Italy's National Geophysics Institute, Enzo Boschi, dismissed Mr Giuliani's predictions.

"Every time there is an earthquake there are people who claim to have predicted it," he said. "As far as I know nobody predicted this earthquake with precision. It is not possible to predict earthquakes."

Mr Boschi said the real problem for Italy was a long-standing failure to take proper precautions despite a history of tragic quakes.

"We have earthquakes but then we forget and do nothing. It's not in our culture to take precautions or build in an appropriate way in areas where there could be strong earthquakes," he said.

Earlier, Massimo Cialente, mayor of L'Aquila, said around 100,000 people had left their homes as a result of the damage, and Italian media reported that up to 50,000 people have been made homeless.

He said: "The situation is terrible, really terrible. Many of my fellow citizens are weeping and I, too, have shed a tear."

The death toll from the 'quake rose steadily during the morning as emergency services scrambled to pull many people trapped under thousands of collapsed homes and apartment blocks.

Deaths were reported in L'Aquila and in the outlying towns and villages of Fossa, Castelnuovo, Poggio Picenze and Tormintarte. At least eight people are missing in nearby San Demetrio dei Vestini.

Most of the damage centred on L'Aquila where homes, churches and university buildings had been damaged. During the 30 second tremor, thousands of the city's 70,000 residents ran on to the streets in panic.

Rescue workers were trying to rescue people from collapsed homes, including a student dormitory where a half a dozen students remained trapped inside, RAI state TV reported.

Television footage from the scene showed residents and rescue workers hauling away debris from collapsed buildings and bloodied residents waiting to be tended to in hospital hallways.