At least six people have been killed in a 6.0 magnitude earthquake that hit the northern parts of Italy on early Sunday.

The quake caused widespread damage to buildings in several towns.

The quake which had a shallow depth of 6.3 miles (10 km) struck the region which is about 35km (22 miles) north of the city of Bologna, according to the US Geological Survey.

Earlier reports put the magnitude at 5.9 which hit the plains of Modena at 4 am local time (2 am GMT).

Three of the victims died when a building under construction collapsed. Strong tremors forced residents to flee their homes in panic.

A woman died of heart attack in Bologna, according to reports coming out of the region.

Several aftershocks have been reported from the region and the quake was felt in the major towns of Bologna, Modena, Ferrara, Rovigo, Verona and Mantua.

"I was woken at around 4am by the quake, it was strong and lasted up to a minute, maybe more," the BBC quoted Frankie Thompson, a UK travel journalist in Bologna, as saying.

"Church bells were set off spontaneously... followed by an eerie silence. Small aftershocks kept coming and going until maybe 5:50am when a stronger tremor shook us again but not as long and dramatic as the first," she added.

According to Italian television reports, the quake damaged several factories and church steeples in the region. Old buildings and historic bell towers in the region are the worst affected. Part of an old fort collapsed in one town.

Several people are feared to have been buried under the rubble and rescue teams are combing the area.

Italy witnessed a 6.3 magnitude earthquake in 2009 which rattled the central Italian city of L'Aquila killing up to 300 people.