A large earthquake rocked a remote mountainous region of eastern Afghanistan on Wednesday, killing at least 1,000 people and injuring 1,500 more.
Officials warned the grim toll, one of the highest caused by a temblor in decades, may continue to climb.
At least 2,000 homes, typically inhabited by between seven and eight people, and buildings were also toppled in the early-morning chaos, leaving many still trapped beneath the rubble, a United Nations representative to Afghanistan, Ramiz Alakbarov, told reporters.
The magnitude 6.1 quake struck about 30 miles southwest of Khost, a provincial capital near the border with Pakistan, shortly after 1:30 a.m. local time, and with a depth of about six miles. Pictures from the scene show huge landslides and flattened homes in the eastern Paktika province, the epicenter of the quake.
The European seismological agency estimated that tremors could be felt over by 119 million people, some of them as many as 300 miles away, spanning Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
With most people sleeping when the quake hit, there was little opportunity to flee. The geography, building construction and population density also makes the region — where many houses are poorly constructed and buildings unstable — particularly vulnerable to earthquake damage, according to U.S. Geological Survey seismologist Robert Sanders.
“Because of the mountainous area, there are rockslides and landslides that we won’t know about until later reporting. Older buildings are likely to crumble and fail,” he said. “Due to how condensed the area is in that part of the world, we’ve seen in the past similar earthquakes deal significant damage.”
In the hours following the quake, Prime Minister Mohammad Hassan Akhund convened an emergency meeting at the presidential palace in Kabul to coordinate the relief effort while Bilal Karimi, a deputy spokesman for the Taliban government, wrote on Twitter to call on relief agencies to provide further support.
The Taliban’s reclusive supreme leader, Haibatullah Akhundzadah also issued a rare public appeal, urging all “the international community and all humanitarian organizations to help the Afghan people affected by this great tragedy and to spare no effort to help the affected people.”
“We ask God to save our poor people from trials and harm,” he said in a statement put out by a Taliban spokesman.
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A team of medics and seven helicopters have since been sent to the area to carry the injured to hospitals Sharan, Paktika and Urgun, Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defense said in a tweet on Wednesday. Both rescue workers and residents could be seen in footage circulated by news agency Bakhtar digging through the remains of their collapsed stone and mud brick houses in bid to save loved ones still stuck beneath the debris.
Coordinating further rescue efforts could prove difficult however, given many international aid agencies departed Afghanistan when the Taliban seized control of the government last year.
The takeover came as the United States revealed plans to withdraw from the nation, nearly two decades after driving out those behind the 9/11 attacks. In the aftermath, the United States and its allies froze about $7 billion of the country’s foreign reserves and cut off international funding.
With the nation already in the throes of hunger and economic crises, Shelley Thakral, the UN. World Food Program spokesperson in Kabul, warned the quake would “only add to the immense humanitarian needs in Afghanistan, and it really has to be all hands on deck to make sure that we really limit the suffering that families, that women and children are already going through.”
The U.S. on Wednesday offered its sympathies to those affected in a tweet on Wednesday, adding it was mourning the hundreds of people lost in the tragedy.
“We are deeply saddened by reports of an earthquake in eastern Afghanistan,” the Twitter account for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul posted. “We offer our heartfelt condolences to all who have been affected by this devastating event.”
With News Wire Services