Fazel Rahman Faizi | Associated Press
Kabul, Afghanistan. A powerful earthquake hit a rugged mountainous region in eastern Afghanistan early Wednesday morning, leveling stone and adobe houses and killing at least 1,000 people in the country’s deadliest quake in two decades, the state news agency reported.
An additional 1,500 people were estimated to have been injured and officials said the death toll could rise.
The debacle caused by the 6.1 earthquake was a major test for the Afghan Taliban government, which regained power almost 10 months ago when the US and its NATO allies left the country and has been largely shunned by the rest of the world ever since.
In a rare act, Taliban supreme leader Haibatullah Akhundzadeh, who almost never appears in public, called on the international community and humanitarian organizations to “help the Afghan people who have suffered from this great tragedy and make every effort to help those affected.” ”
Residents in a remote area near the Pakistani border searched for victims, dead or alive, by digging through rubble with their bare hands, according to footage provided by the Bakhtar news agency. It was not immediately clear if heavy rescue equipment was on its way, or even if it could reach the location.
At least 2,000 houses have been destroyed in the region, with an average of seven to eight people living in each house, Ramiz Alekperov, UN Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan, said.
The full extent of the destruction among the villages hidden in the mountains was slowly being revealed. Rutted roads, difficult to drive at the best of times, could be badly damaged, and landslides from recent rains made access even more difficult.
Rescuers arrived by helicopter, but relief efforts could be hampered by the exodus of many international aid organizations from Afghanistan following the Taliban’s takeover last August. Moreover, most governments are wary of dealing directly with the Taliban.
Alekbarov said that in a sign of confusion between the Taliban and the rest of the world, the Taliban have not formally asked the UN to mobilize international search and rescue teams or obtain equipment from neighboring countries in addition to several dozen ambulances and several helicopters sent by the Afghan authorities.
The catastrophe only exacerbates the suffering of Afghanistan, which has already plunged into one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, with millions of people facing growing hunger and poverty after international funding for the Taliban was cut off. This prompted a huge aid program, but to keep the money from falling into the hands of the Taliban, the world funneled funding through the UN and other humanitarian agencies, a system that may be too slow to respond quickly to an earthquake.
According to the meteorological department of neighboring Pakistan, the earthquake was located in the province of Paktika, about 50 km southwest of the city of Khost. 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 more than 500 kilometers (310 miles) away by 119 million people in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
Footage from Paktika shows men carrying people in blankets to a waiting helicopter. Other victims were treated on the ground. One person could be seen receiving intravenous fluids while sitting in a plastic chair near the ruins of his house, and more people were lying on gurneys. Some images show residents sorting through clay bricks and other rubble. Roofs and walls collapsed.
The death toll was equal to that of the 2002 earthquake in northern Afghanistan. These are the deadliest events since 1998, when a 6.1 magnitude earthquake and subsequent aftershocks in the remote northeast killed at least 4,500 people.
Wednesday’s quake hit a region prone to landslides and many old buildings are likely to collapse.
“The fear is that the number of casualties will increase, also because many people could be trapped under collapsed buildings,” said Stefano Sozza, regional director of the Italian emergency medical team in Afghanistan.
The emergency service, which was distributing humanitarian aid in Afghanistan before the disaster, sent seven ambulances and staff to areas located near the earthquake zone.
Children’s agency UNICEF has deployed health and nutrition teams to the area and sent truckloads of blankets, tents and other items, Sam Mort, head of UNICEF communications in Afghanistan, told British broadcaster Sky. According to her, hospitals in the region are overflowing with the wounded.
Pakistan said it would send food, tents, blankets and other essentials.
The earthquake “will only exacerbate the huge humanitarian needs in Afghanistan, and every effort really needs to be made to make sure we really limit the suffering that families, women and children are already going through,” said Shelley Thakral. Representative of the UN World Food Program in Kabul.
In the capital, Prime Minister Mohammad Hassan Akhund called an emergency meeting at the presidential palace.
“When such a major incident occurs in any country, the help of other countries is needed,” said Sharafuddin Muslim, Deputy Minister of State for Disaster Management. “It is very difficult for us to respond to this large-scale incident.”
This may prove difficult given Afghanistan’s international isolation under the rule of the Taliban, who were ousted by the US after the 9/11 attacks. The newly reinstated government issued a series of decrees that curtailed the rights of women and girls and the media, revisiting the Taliban’s brutal rule of the late 1990s.
“This makes the daily burden of survival much more difficult,” said UN spokesman Alekperov. “Today we are not optimistic.”
Associated Press contributors Raheem Fayez and Munir Ahmed in Islamabad, and John Gambrell and Isabelle DeBré in Dubai, United Arab Emirates contributed to this report.