KABUL, Afghanistan (TUSEN) — A powerful earthquake struck a rugged mountainous region of eastern Afghanistan early Wednesday, flattening stone and mud-brick houses and killing at least 1,000 people in the strongest quake the country’s deadliest in two decades, the state news agency reported.
Another 1,500 people are estimated to have been injured and authorities said the death toll could rise.
The disaster inflicted by the 6.1 magnitude earthquake was a major test for the Afghan Taliban government, which regained power nearly 10 months ago when the United States and its NATO allies withdrew from the country and has been largely shunned by the rest of the world ever since.
In a rare gesture, Taliban Supreme Leader Haibatullah Akhundzadah, who hardly ever appears in public, pleaded with the international community and humanitarian organizations “to help the Afghan people affected by this great tragedy and spare no effort to help those affected. ”
Residents of the remote area near the Pakistani border searched for dead or alive victims by digging with their bare hands through the rubble, according to footage carried by the Bakhtar news agency. It was not immediately clear if heavy rescue equipment was dispatched, or even if it could reach the area.
At least 2,000 homes have been destroyed in the area, where on average each home is home to seven or eight people, said Ramiz Alakbarov, the UN’s deputy special representative in Afghanistan.
The extent of the destruction among the villages nestled in the mountains was slow to become apparent. The rutted roads – difficult to cross at the best of times – may have been badly damaged and landslides from recent rains have made access even more difficult.
Rescuers rushed in by helicopter, but the relief effort could be hampered by the exodus of many international aid agencies from Afghanistan after the Taliban took power last August. Moreover, most governments are reluctant to deal directly with the Taliban.
In a sign of the confused working between the Taliban and the rest of the world, Alakbarov said the Taliban had not officially requested the UN to mobilize international search and rescue teams or obtain equipment from neighboring countries to supplement the few dozen ambulances and several helicopters sent by the Afghan authorities.
The disaster only adds to the misery in Afghanistan, which is already plunged into one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, with millions facing increasing hunger and poverty after international funding is cut off. of the Taliban. This triggered a huge aid program, but to avoid putting money in the hands of the Taliban, the world funneled funds through the UN and other aid agencies, a system that can be too slow for an emergency earthquake response.
The quake was centered in Paktika province, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) southwest of the city of Khost, according to the nearby Pakistan Meteorological Department. Experts estimate its depth at only 10 kilometers (6 miles). Shallow earthquakes tend to cause more damage.
The European seismological agency said the quake was felt over 500 kilometers (310 miles) by 119 million people across Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
Footage from Paktika showed men carrying people in blankets to a waiting helicopter. Other victims were treated on the ground. One person could be seen receiving intravenous fluids as they sat in a plastic chair outside the rubble of their home, and still others lay on stretchers. Some footage showed residents digging through clay bricks and other rubble. Roofs and walls had collapsed.
The death toll was equal to that of a 2002 earthquake in northern Afghanistan. They are the deadliest since 1998, when an earthquake also measuring 6.1 and subsequent tremors in the far northeast killed at least 4,500 people.
Wednesday’s earthquake took place in an area prone to landslides, with many older buildings at risk of collapse.
“The fear is that the number of victims will increase further, especially because many people could be trapped under collapsed buildings,” said Stefano Sozza, national director for Afghanistan of the Italian medical aid group Emergency.
Emergency, which was distributing humanitarian aid in Afghanistan before the disaster, dispatched seven ambulances and personnel to areas near the earthquake zone.
Children’s agency UNICEF had health and nutrition teams in the area and sent trucks full of blankets, tents and other supplies, said Sam Mort, communications manager for UNICEF Afghanistan, on the British television channel Sky. Area hospitals were overwhelmed with injured people, she said.
Pakistan said it would send food, tents, blankets and other essential items.
The earthquake “will only add to the immense humanitarian needs in Afghanistan, and it really takes everyone on board to make sure we really limit the suffering that families, women and children are already going through. “said Shelley Thakral, spokeswoman for the United Nations World Food Program in Kabul.
In the capital, Prime Minister Mohammad Hassan Akhund called an emergency meeting at the presidential palace.
“When such a serious incident occurs in one country, help from other countries is needed,” said Sharafuddin Muslim, deputy state minister for disaster management. “It is very difficult for us to be able to respond to this huge incident.”
This may prove difficult given Afghanistan’s international isolation under the Taliban, which was ousted from power by the United States following the 9/11 attacks. The newly restored government issued a series of edicts restricting the rights of women and girls and the news media in a throwback to the harsh Taliban rule of the late 1990s.
“It adds a lot to the daily burden of survival,” said the UN’s Alakbarov. “We are not optimistic today.”
The US Express News writers Rahim Faiez and Munir Ahmed in Islamabad and Jon Gambrell and Isabel DeBre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.