KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – A powerful earthquake struck a rural, mountainous region in eastern Afghanistan early Wednesday, killing 1,000 and injuring 1,500 in one of the deadliest earthquakes in the country in decades, the state news agency reported. Officials warned the already grim toll could still rise.
Information from the remote area near the Pakistani border remained scarce, but early images of villages hidden among the rugged mountains showed residents picking through the rubble of collapsed stone and mud houses.
The disaster formed a important test for the Afghan Taliban governmentwho seized power nearly 10 months ago as the US and its NATO allies prepared to withdraw from the country, and has since been largely shunned by the global community.
Rescue workers rushed to the area by helicopter, but the response is likely to be complicated as many international aid organizations left Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover. In addition, most governments are wary of dealing directly with the Taliban, a reluctance that could delay the deployment of emergency aid and teams normally sent after such natural disasters.
In a rare move, the reclusive Taliban Supreme Leader, Haibatullah Akhundzadah, who rarely appears in public, called for “the international community and all humanitarian organizations to help the Afghan people affected by this great tragedy and do everything in their power to work to help those affected. people.”
“We ask God to save our poor people from tribulations and harm,” he said in a statement from the Taliban spokesman.
The disaster strikes at a time when Afghanistan is already deep in one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, with millions face increasing hunger and poverty following the cessation of the Taliban’s international funding. That has led to a massive aid program, but to prevent money from falling into the hands of the Taliban, the world has funneled funding to the UN and other humanitarian organizations — a system that may be too slow for an emergency response to the earthquake.
In addition, it remains difficult to reach rural areas, even in the best of conditions, in Afghanistan, a landlocked country just smaller than Texas, with worn mountain roads that may now have sustained significant damage.
The 6.1 magnitude earthquake had its epicenter in Paktika province, some 50 kilometers (31 miles) southwest of Khost city, according to the neighboring Pakistan Meteorological Department.
Earthquakes of that magnitude can wreak havoc in an area where houses and other buildings are poorly constructed and landslides are common. Experts estimate its depth at just 10 kilometers (6 miles) — another factor that could lead to serious destruction.
Footage from Paktika showed men carrying people in blankets to waiting helicopters. Others were treated on the ground. One resident was seen receiving IV fluids while sitting in a plastic chair outside the rubble of his home, and more were sprawled on stretchers. Some images showed residents picking through bricks and other debris from ruined stone houses, some of which had collapsed roofs or walls.
The Bakhtar News Agency’s death toll was equal to that of a 2002 earthquake in northern Afghanistan. Those are the deadliest since 1998, when an earthquake also measuring 6.1 on the Richter scale and subsequent tremors in the remote northeast killed at least 4,500 people.
In most places in the world, an earthquake of that magnitude wouldn’t wreak such havoc, said Robert Sanders, a seismologist with the US Geological Survey. But the death toll from an earthquake more often comes down to geography, build quality and population density.
“Because of the mountainous area, there are landslides and landslides that we won’t know about until later. Older buildings are likely to crumble and collapse,” he said. “Because of how compact the area is in that part of the world, we’ve seen similar earthquakes in the past cause significant damage.”
The Taliban are still trying to restore ministries vacated by personnel loyal to the previous West-backed government, and it was not clear how officials arrived at the casualty toll reported by Bakhtar.
In Kabul, Prime Minister Mohammad Hassan Akhund called an emergency meeting at the presidential palace to coordinate relief efforts, and Bilal Karimi, a deputy spokesman for the Taliban government, wrote on Twitter to urge aid groups to send teams to the area.
“When such a major incident occurs in one country, there is a need for help from other countries,” said Sharafuddin Muslim, secretary of state for disaster management. “It is very difficult for us to respond to this massive incident.”
The “response is underway,” UN coordinator in Afghanistan, Ramiz Alakbarov, wrote on Twitter.
That may be difficult given Afghanistan’s renewed international isolation under the Taliban after their takeover last year, two decades after the US-led invasion toppled the same insurgents. in the wake of the 9/11 attacks† The new government has a wave of repressive edicts issued curtailing the rights of women and girls and the press who, for their part, are relying on the hardline regime of the Taliban since the late 1990s, despite promises that this would not happen.
However, according to Bakhtar’s director-general Abdul Wahid Rayan, the Afghan Red Crescent sent some 4,000 blankets, 800 tents and 800 kitchen packages to the affected area.
The Italian emergency medical organization, which is still active in Afghanistan, said it has sent seven ambulances and personnel to the areas closest to the earthquake zone.
“The fear is that the number of victims will increase further, also because many people could become trapped under collapsed buildings,” said Stefano Sozza, country director for Emergency in Afghanistan. “This latest tragedy cannot but further worsen the state of fragility and economic and social difficulties that Afghanistan has been experiencing for months.”
Pakistani Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif said his country would provide assistance. Pope Francis has prayed at the Vatican for all the dead and injured and for the “suffering of the dear Afghan people”.
The European seismological agency, EMSC, said the quake’s tremors were felt over 500 kilometers (310 miles) by 119 million people in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
In some remote areas of Pakistan, there were reports of damage to houses near the Afghan border, but it was not immediately clear whether that was due to rain or the earthquake, said Taimoor Khan, a spokesman for disaster management in the area.
Mountainous Afghanistan and the greater region of South Asia along the Hindu Kush Mountains have long been vulnerable to devastating earthquakes.
Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez and Munir Ahmed in Islamabad and Jon Gambrell and Isabel DeBre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.