Major General Tatang Sulaiman, chief of the army in Aceh province, said at least 97 people had died while four others were pulled from the rubble alive. Another four or five were still believed to be buried, but it was not known if they were dead or alive.
“Hopefully we would be able to finish the evacuation from the rubble before sunset,” said Major General Sulaiman.
The rescue effort involving thousands of villagers, soldiers and police was concentrated on Meureudu, a severely affected town in Pidie Jaya district. Excavators were trying to remove debris from shop houses and other buildings where people were believed to have been buried. TV footage showed rescuers in orange uniforms shining torches inside broken buildings as they searched for signs of life.
The National Disaster Mitigation Agency said 273 people were injured, about a quarter of them seriously.
Some 245 buildings were seriously damaged or destroyed, mostly in Pidie Jaya, including 14 mosques. The remainder were largely dwellings and shops. Roads also cracked and power poles toppled over.
Aiyub Abbas, the chief of Pidie Jaya district, which is 11 miles south-west of the epicentre, said there was urgent need for excavation equipment to move heavy debris and emergency supplies. Footage showed rescue personnel taking bodies in black bags away from the rubble.
The US Geological Survey said the shallow 6.5 magnitude earthquake which struck at 5:03am local time was centred about 12 miles south-east of Sigli, a town on the northern tip of Aceh, at a depth of 11 miles. It did not generate a tsunami.
For Acehnese, the quake was a terrifying reminder of their region’s vulnerability to natural disasters. More than 100,000 died in Aceh after the earthquake on 26 December, 2004 triggered a devastating tsunami.
“It was very bad, the tremors felt even stronger than 2004 earthquake,” said Musman Aziz, a Meureudu resident. “I was so scared the tsunami was coming.”
In the capital, Jakarta, president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo said he has ordered all government agencies to take part in the rescue efforts. The Red Cross Indonesia has deployed emergency response teams and advertised bank accounts for donations. The International Organisation for Migration said it had sent an assessment team to Aceh.
Seaside resident Fitri Abidin in Pidie Jaya said she fled with her husband and children to a nearby hill after the quake jolted the family awake early in the morning.
They stayed there for several hours until authorities reassured them there was no tsunami risk.
“It terrified me. I was having difficulty breathing or walking,” said Ms Abidin.
She said her husband grabbed hold of her and carried her out of the house.
The family’s home did not collapse but some neighbours’ properties did and Ms Abidin is afraid that three friends were buried in building collapses.
In Pidie Jaya’s neighbouring district of Bireuen, a teacher at an Islamic building school died after being hit by falling debris, said health worker Achmad Taufiq.
Residents of the nearby town of Lhokseumawe ran out of their houses in panic during the quake and many people fled to higher ground.
Indonesia is prone to earthquakes due to its location on the Pacific “Ring of Fire”, an arc of volcanoes and fault lines in the Pacific Basin.