Southern Japan was rattled by aftershocks on 15 April after a major earthquake killed at least nine people and caused widespread damage. The government said more than 850 people were injured, including 53 seriously, by the quake with a magnitude of 6.5 that struck near the city of Kumamoto on Kyushu Island on the evening of 14 April.

Some 130 aftershocks have since been recorded in the area. Their frequency is abating, but authorities warned tremors could be felt for another week.

Meanwhile, rescuers were searching through the rubble of collapsed buildings to confirm no more people were trapped underneath. Japan's government spokesman and its Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yoshihide Suga, said 1,600 soldiers were deployed to help with rescue operations.

"We will do everything in our power to ensure the safety of local residents," said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Mashiki, a town 15km (nine miles) east of Kumamoto, was the worst hit by the quake, with eight of nine fatalities coming from the area.

The victims were five women and four men, with the youngest in his twenties and the oldest in her nineties. About 44,000 people had to leave their homes and were told to stay at one of 500 shelters set up by authorities.

Some buildings were badly damaged by the earthquake, which also caused cuts to power and water supplies for thousands of families. Gas providers said they received reports of 54 gas leaks and were forced to halt deliveries to more than 1,000 households, the Japan Times reported.

Images from the scene showed smashed windows, crumbing walls and roofs slid off. Wide cracks opened on a stretch of freeway running near Mashiki and an empty bullet train heading back to a station in Kumamoto derailed after its emergency brakes were pulled.

The local Kumamoto Castle, which has parts dating back to the 15<sup>th century, was also badly damaged, with walls collapsing and cracks appearing in its turrets. The epicentre was located only 120km northeast of the Sendai nuclear plant, but Suga said all nearby atomic facilities appeared unaffected.