A large meteorite exploded Friday over an sparsely populated region of Russia's Ural Mountains, leaving nearly 1,000 injured and sparking panic.

The rare event occurred just hours before an asteroid was due to pass Earth at a distance of just 27,000 kilometers (16,800 miles).

"There were several dozen quite large fragments (of the meteorite), several of which fell to Earth," local news agencies quoted Emergency Situations Minister Vladimir Puchkov as saying.

Russian scientists have set up a laboratory in the area to study the fragments of the so-called "Chelyabinsk Meteor," a reference to the region of the Urals where the incident occurred.

The director of the astronomical observatory at Irkutsk State University, Sergei Yazev, said the meteorite weighed nearly 50 tons, while other experts said it had a diameter of between one and several meters (yards).

Some scientists have linked the fallen meteorite to the estimated 45-meter (150-foot) diameter 2012 DA14 asteroid that is due to pass Earth on Friday and, according to NASA, is the largest predicted Earth approach for an object that large.

The meteorite streaked across the sky some 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the town of Satka at around 9:20 a.m. and broke up. The shockwave from the explosion affected several adjacent regions and even parts of the neighboring Central Asian country of Kazakhstan.

According to Chelyabinsk Oblast Gov. Mikhail Yurevich, some 950 people were injured by falling meteorite fragments, while several thousand homes were affected by the shockwave.

The Russian Health Ministry, for its part, said two people are in serious condition and 22 others in moderately serious condition, mostly due to injuries caused by flying glass. EFE