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 deadliest quakes in decades, the state-run news agency reported. Officials warned that the already grim death toll may still rise.
Information remained scarce on the magnitude-6.1 temblor that damaged buildings in Khost and Paktika provinces. Rescue efforts are likely to be complicated since many international aid agencies left Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover of the country last year and the chaotic withdrawal of the U.S. military from the longest war in its history.
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 a 6.1-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tremors in Afghanistan’s remote northeast killed at least 4,500 people.
Neighbouring Pakistan’s Meteorological Department said the quake’s epicentre was in Afghanistan’s Paktika province, just near the border and some 50 kilometres southwest of the city of Khost.
Footage from Paktika province near the Pakistan border showed victims being carried into helicopters to be airlifted from the area. 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. Other images showed residents picking through clay bricks and other rubble from destroyed stone houses.
Afghan emergency official Sharafuddin Muslim gave the death toll in a news conference Wednesday. Earlier, the director general of state-run Bakhtar news agency, Abdul Wahid Rayan, wrote on Twitter that 90 houses have been destroyed in Paktika and dozens of people are believed trapped under the rubble.
Bilal Karimi, a deputy spokesman for the Taliban government, gave no specific death toll but wrote on Twitter that hundreds of people were killed and injured in the earthquake, which shook four districts in Paktika.
“We urge all aid agencies to send teams to the area immediately to prevent further catastrophe,” he wrote.
‘Response is on its way’: UN
In just one district of the neighbouring Khost province, the earthquake killed at least 25 people and injured more than 95 others, local officials said.
In Kabul, Prime Minister Mohammad Hassan Akhund convened an emergency meeting at the presidential palace to co-ordinate the relief effort for victims in Paktika and Khost.
The “response is on its way,” the United Nations resident co-ordinator in Afghanistan, Ramiz Alakbarov, wrote on Twitter.
After the Taliban swept across the country in 2021, the U.S. military and its allies fell back to Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport and later withdrew completely. Many international humanitarian organizations followed suit because of concerns about security and the Taliban’s poor human rights record.
In the time since, the Taliban has worked with Qatar, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates on restarting airport operations in Kabul and across the country — but nearly all international carriers still avoid the country, and reluctance on the part of aid organizations to put any money in the Taliban’s coffers could make it difficult to fly in supplies and equipment.
The Afghan Red Crescent Society, however, sent 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 further the condition of fragility and economic and social difficulties which Afghanistan has experienced for months.”
Tremors felt in Pakistan and India
In most places in the world, an earthquake of this magnitude 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.”
Deeply grieved to learn about earthquake in Afghanistan, resulting in loss of innocent lives. People in Pakistan share the grief & sorrow of their Afghan brethren. Relevant authorities working to support Afghanistan in this time of need.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif in a statement offered his condolences over the earthquake, saying his nation will provide help to the Afghan people.
Mountainous Afghanistan and the larger region of South Asia along the Hindu Kush mountains, where the Indian tectonic plate collides with the Eurasian plate to the north, has long been vulnerable to devastating earthquakes.
The European seismological agency, EMSC, said the earthquake’s tremors were felt over 500 kilometres by 119 million people across Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
In 2015, a major earthquake that struck the country’s northeast killed over 200 people in Afghanistan and neighbouring northern Pakistan.