State officials were quoted by the New Straits Times saying at least four climbers had suffered injuries including broken bones and head wounds as the quake loosened stones and boulders on the 4,095-metre (13,435-foot) mountain’s wide granite summit.
The force of the tremor was so strong that it snapped off one of the two “Donkey’s Ear” rock outcroppings that form a distinctive part of the peak’s craggy profile, sending it crashing into a gully, tourism minister for Sabah state Masidi Manjun said on his Twitter feed.
“Bad news confirmed! Part of the iconic ‘Donkey’s Ear’ @Mount Kinabalu is gone due to strong tremor this morning,” he said.
All climbing activities have been halted until further notice.
The US Geological Survey said the quake struck at around 7:15 am (2315 GMT) at a depth of 10 kilometres, with its epicentre located about 54 kilometres (34 miles) east of Kota Kinabalu, capital of Sabah.
No tsunami warning was issued, and there were no initial reports of major damage.
Colin Forsythe, a resident of Kota Kinabalu, said the quake lasted around 15 seconds and felt “as if a truck had crashed into a brick wall.”
Local media reports said residents throughout the quake-affected region fled in panic from homes and buildings, including Kota Kinabalu’s International Airport.
Social media users uploaded photos showing damaged roads, shattered storefront windows, cracked walls and floors, and rooms strewn with debris flung from shelves.
— Sir Arman Jebat (@MistaAimanVevo) June 5, 2015
Major earthquakes are rare in Malaysia, which lies just outside the Ring of Fire, the belt of seismic activity running around the Pacific basin.
Malaysia is on a school break and Mount Kinabalu’s peak had at least 145 climbers on it at the time of the quake, Sabah’s state parks director Jamili Nais was quoted saying by the New Straits Times.
They have been ordered to stay put until it was deemed safe to come down, Nais said, adding that the injured would be brought down using helicopters.
Photos from the peak of Mount Kinabalu, as stranded climbers wait to be rescued after this morning’s earthquake. pic.twitter.com/8yoZgBXbxP
— Malay Mail Online (@themmailonline) June 5, 2015
Mount Kinabalu is sacred to the local Kadazun Dusun tribal group, considered a resting place for departed spirits.
A group of 10 apparently Western men and women angered locals last weekend when they snapped nude photos at the summit and uploaded them on the Internet.
Some Malaysian social media users posited that the quake was a sign the spirits had been angered by the act.
Authorities have not yet publicly identified the Caucasian-looking tourists or their suspected nationalities. Media reports have said they already had left the country.
Thousands of people complete the relatively easy climb to the summit each year. – AFP