A powerful earthquake struck a rural, mountainous region of eastern Afghanistan early Wednesday, killing 1,000 people and injuring 1,500 more in one of the country’s deadliest quakes in decades, the state-run news agency reported. Officials warned that the already grim toll may still rise.
Information from the remote area near the Pakistani border remained scarce, but early footage from villages tucked among the rough mountains showed residents picking through the rubble of collapsed stone and mudbrick houses.
The disaster posed a major test for Afghanistan’s Taliban government, which seized power nearly 10 months ago as the U.S. and its NATO allies prepared to pull out of the country and has been largely shunned by the world community since.
Rescuers rushed to the area by helicopter, but the response is likely to be complicated since many international aid agencies left Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover. Moreover, most governments are wary of dealing directly with the Taliban, a reluctance that could slow the deployment of emergency aid and teams typically sent after such natural disasters.
In a rare move, the Taliban’s reclusive supreme leader, Haibatullah Akhundzadah, who almost never appears in public, called for “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 the Taliban spokesman.
The disaster hits at a time when Afghanistan is already deep in one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, with millions facing increasing hunger and poverty after the cutoff of international financing to the Taliban. That has prompted a massive aid program, but to avoid putting money in the Taliban’s hands, the world has funneled funding through the U.N. and other humanitarian agencies — a system that may be too slow for an emergency response to the quake.
What’s more, reaching rural areas even in the best circumstances remains difficult in Afghanistan, a landlocked nation just smaller than Texas with rutted mountain roadways that may now have sustained significant damage.
The 6.1 magnitude quake had its epicenter in Paktika province, some 50 kilometers (31 miles) southwest of the city of Khost, according to neighboring Pakistan’s Meteorological Department.
Quakes of that strength can cause serious damage in an area where homes and other buildings are poorly constructed and landslides are common. Experts put the depth at just 10 kilometers (6 miles) — another factor that could lead to severe destruction.
Footage from Paktika showed men carrying people in blankets to waiting helicopters. Others were treated on the ground. One resident could be seen receiving IV fluids while sitting in a plastic chair outside the rubble of his home and still more were sprawled on gurneys. Some images showed residents picking through clay bricks and other rubble from destroyed stone houses, some of whose roofs or walls had caved in.
The death toll given by the Bakhtar News Agency was equal to that of a quake in 2002 in northern Afghanistan. Those are the deadliest since 1998 when an earthquake also 6.1 in magnitude and subsequent tremors in the remote northeast killed at least 4,500 people.
In most places in the world, an earthquake of that strength wouldn’t inflict such extensive devastation, said Robert Sanders, a seismologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. But a quake’s death toll more often comes down to geography, building quality, and population density.
“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.”
The Taliban are still trying to reconstitute government ministries abandoned by staff loyal to its previous Western-backed government, and it was not clear how officials arrived at the casualty tolls reported by Bakhtar.
In Kabul, Prime Minister Mohammad Hassan Akhund convened an emergency meeting at the presidential palace to coordinate the relief effort, and Bilal Karimi, a deputy spokesman for the Taliban government, wrote on Twitter to urge aid agencies to send teams to the area.
“When such a big incident happens in any country, there is a need for help from other countries,” said Sharafuddin Muslim, deputy minister of state for disaster management. “It is very difficult for us to be able to respond to this huge incident.”
The “response is on its way,” the U.N. resident coordinator in Afghanistan, Ramiz Alakbarov, wrote on Twitter.
That may prove difficult given the renewed international isolation of Afghanistan under the Taliban following their takeover last year, two decades after the U.S.-led invasion toppled the same insurgents in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The new government has issued a flurry of repressive edicts curtailing the rights of women and girls and the press that hark to the Taliban’s harsh rule from the late 1990s, despite promising that would not happen.
The Afghan Red Crescent Society, however, sent some 4,000 blankets, 800 tents and 800 kitchen kits to the affected area, according to Bakhtar’s director-general, Abdul Wahid Rayan.
The Italian medical aid group Emergency, which still operates in Afghanistan, said it sent seven ambulances and staff to the areas closest to the quake zone.
“The fear is that the victims will increase further, also because many people could be trapped under collapsed buildings,” said Stefano Sozza, country director for Emergency in Afghanistan. “This latest tragedy cannot but worsen further the condition of fragility and economic and social difficulties which Afghanistan has experienced for months.”
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif said his nation would provide help. At the Vatican, Pope Francis offered prayers for all those killed and injured and for the “suffering of the dear Afghan population.”
The European seismological agency, EMSC, said the earthquake’s tremors were felt over 500 kilometers (310 miles) by 119 million people across Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
Some remote areas of Pakistan saw reports of damage to homes near the Afghan border, but it wasn’t immediately clear if that was due to rain or the earthquake, said Taimoor Khan, a disaster management spokesperson in the area.
Mountainous Afghanistan and the larger region of South Asia along the Hindu Kush mountains have long been vulnerable to devastating earthquakes.
Afghanistan quake kills 1,000 people, deadliest in decades