Many more houses were damaged, officials said, and dozens of sheep and goats killed.

Extensive damage

Two schools and a clinic were also destroyed, and electricity supplies and communications were cut off by the quake.

The quake came as the Central Asian nation is approaching its coldest time of the year, with temperatures going down to -20 degrees Celsius.

Authorities said they were assessing damages, but their work was complicated by the location of the destroyed villages. The main road between the regional centre, the town of Vanj, and nearby villages, was blocked.

Shamsiddinov said preliminary damage estimates were between $1m and $1.5m.

Some residents in the Vanj district said they were afraid there could be another quake in the coming days.

"We live as if we were on a volcano," Nazarbek Shodiyenov, a villager, said.

"We feel constantly scared that an earthquake will strike again ... There is a feeling that the earth is constantly moving."

Earthquakes are relatively frequent in Tajikistan, which is one of the
poorest of the former Soviet nations.