A powerful earthquake struck a remote border region of Afghanistan overnight, killing at least 1,000 people and injuring hundreds more, officials said on Wednesday, with the number expected to rise as desperate rescuers dig in collapsed houses.
The 5.9-magnitude quake hit hardest in the rugged east, where people are already leading a hard life in a country plagued by a humanitarian catastrophe made worse by the Taliban takeover in August.
“People are digging grave after grave,” said Mohammad Amin Huzaifa, head of the Department of Information and Culture in hard-hit Paktika, adding that at least 1,000 people had died in that province alone.
“It’s also raining, and all the houses are destroyed. People are still trapped under the rubble,” he told reporters.
The death toll rose steadily throughout the day as news of casualties filtered in from hard-to-reach areas in the mountains, and the country’s supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, warned it was likely to rise further.
Earlier, a Paktika tribal leader said survivors and rescuers were scrambling to help those affected.
“Local markets are closed and all people have rushed to the affected areas,” Yaqub Manzor told AFP by telephone.
Photographs and video clips posted on social media showed dozens of badly damaged mud houses in remote rural areas.
Some footage showed local residents loading casualties into a military helicopter.
Offers of help
Even before the Taliban takeover, Afghan emergency response teams were called upon to deal with the natural disasters that frequently struck the country.
But with only a handful of planes and helicopters airworthy since hardline Islamists returned to power, any immediate response to the latest disaster is even more limited.
“The government is working within its capacity,” tweeted Anas Haqqani, a senior Taliban official.
“We hope the international community and aid agencies will also help our people in this dire situation.”
The United Nations and the European Union were quick to offer assistance.
“Inter-agency assessment teams have already been deployed to a number of affected areas,” tweeted the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) in Afghanistan.
Tomas Niklasson, EU Special Envoy for Afghanistan, tweeted: “The EU is monitoring the situation and stands ready to coordinate and provide emergency EU assistance to affected individuals and communities.”
Afghanistan is frequently hit by earthquakes – especially in the Hindu Kush mountain range, which lies near the junction of the Eurasian and Indian tectonic plates.
Dozens of people were killed and injured in January when two earthquakes hit rural areas in the western province of Badghis, damaging hundreds of buildings.
In 2015, more than 380 people were killed in Pakistan and Afghanistan when a 7.5 magnitude earthquake rocked the two countries, with the bulk of the deaths in Pakistan.
From Vatican City, Pope Francis offered prayers for the victims of the latest earthquake.
“I express my closeness to the wounded and those who have been affected,” the 85-year-old pontiff said at the end of his weekly audience.
Aid agencies and the United Nations say Afghanistan needs billions of dollars this year to deal with its current humanitarian crisis.
Aid agencies have particularly stressed the need for better disaster preparedness in Afghanistan, which remains extremely vulnerable to recurrent earthquakes, floods and landslides.
The quake was felt as far away as Lahore in Pakistan, 480 kilometers (300 miles) from the epicenter, according to responses posted on the USGS and European Mediterranean Seismological Center (EMSC) websites.
(Except for the title, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)
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