It was the deadliest earthquake in Afghanistan in two decades and officials said the death toll could rise. The state news agency reported that an estimated 1,500 others were injured.
The disaster triggered by the 6.0-magnitude earthquake has exacerbated misery in a country where millions have faced hunger, growing poverty and a collapsing health system since the Taliban regained power nearly 10 months ago amid the US and NATO withdrawal. The takeover cut vital international funding, and most of the world shunned the Taliban government.
How – and whether the Taliban allow – the world to help remains in question as rescuers without heavy equipment dug up the rubble with their bare hands.
“We are asking the Islamic Emirate and all the countries to come forward and help us,” said one of the survivors, who gave his name as Hakimullah. “We are nothing and have nothing, not even a tent to live in.”
The full extent of the destruction among the villages tucked into the mountains was slow to emerge. The roads, which were tattered and difficult to walk in the best of conditions, may have been badly damaged, and landslides caused by recent rains have made them more difficult to access.
While modern buildings withstand earthquakes of magnitude 6 elsewhere, mud and brick homes and mountains prone to landslides make such earthquakes more dangerous.
Rescuers rushed by helicopter, but relief efforts could be hampered by the exodus of many international aid agencies from Afghanistan after the Taliban seized power last August. Moreover, most governments are wary of dealing directly with the Taliban.
Referring to the muddled business between the Taliban and the rest of the world, the Taliban did not formally ask the United Nations to mobilize international search and rescue teams or obtain equipment from neighboring countries to supplement the few dozen ambulances and many helicopters sent in. By the Afghan authorities, said Ramez Alakbarov, Deputy Special Representative of the United Nations in Afghanistan.
However, officials from several UN agencies said the Taliban are giving them full access to the area.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid wrote on Twitter that eight trucks of food and other necessities from Pakistan had arrived in Paktika. He also said, on Thursday, that two planes of humanitarian aid from Iran and another from Qatar had arrived in the country.
Getting more direct international assistance may be more difficult: Many countries, including the United States, funnel humanitarian aid into Afghanistan through the United Nations and other similar organizations to avoid putting money in the hands of the Taliban.
The neighboring Pakistan Meteorological Department said the epicenter of the quake was in Paktika province, about 50 km southwest of the city of Khost. Experts have determined its depth to be only 10 kilometers (6 miles). Shallow earthquakes tend to cause more damage.
The death toll reported by Bakhtar News Agency was equal to the death toll from the 2002 earthquake in northern Afghanistan. It is the deadliest since 1998, when a 6.1-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tremors in the remote northeastern region killed at least 4,500 people.
Wednesday’s earthquake occurred in an area prone to landslides with many old and weaker buildings.
In the neighboring district of Spree in Khost province, which was also badly damaged, the men stood over what was once a mud house. The earthquake tore its rafters. People sat outside under a makeshift tent made of a blanket blowing in the breeze.
The survivors quickly prepared the area’s dead, including children and infants, for burial. Officials fear that more deaths will be found in the coming days.
“It is difficult to collect all the accurate information because it is a mountainous area,” said Sultan Mahmud, head of the Spray district. “The information we have is what we have collected from the residents of these areas.”
Associated Press writers John Gambrill in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Rahim Fayez and Munir Ahmed in Islamabad contributed to this report.