Rescuers were on Tuesday (Oct 27) picking their way through rugged terrain and pockets of Taleban insurgency in the search for survivors after a massive quake hit Pakistan and Afghanistan, killing at least 426 people.
The toll was expected to rise as search teams reach remote areas that were cut off by the powerful 7.5-magnitude quake, which triggered landslides and stampedes as it toppled buildings and severed communication lines.
Pakistan’s military has been mobilised and India – whose relationship with Islamabad is often prickly – said it stood ready to help.
In the most horrifying episode to emerge so far from the quake, 12 young Afghan girls were crushed to death in a stampede as they tried to flee their shaking school building.
The bulk of the casualties were reported from Pakistan, where 311 people were killed and more than 1,600 injured, disaster management authorities said.
“Many houses and buildings have collapsed in the city,” said Arbab Muhammad Asim, district mayor for the north-western city of Peshawar.
Many people were trapped under piles of rubble, with officials warning that the toll was set to rise.
“The building was swinging like a pendulum, it felt as if the heavens would fall,” Peshawar shop owner Tufail Ahmed said.
Afghan officials said at least 115 people were confirmed dead and more than 230 injured, with casualties reported from around half a dozen of the country’s 34 provinces.
The government has implored aid agencies for assistance.
But large swathes of Badakhshan, the remote province where the epicentre is located, and other areas are effectively controlled by the Taleban, posing a huge challenge to any official aid efforts.
“(The) earthquake was the strongest one felt in the recent decades,” said Afghanistan’s chief executive Abdullah Abdullah.
“Initial reports show a big loss of life and huge financial losses in Badakhshan, Takhar, Nangarhar, Kunar and other regions. Exact numbers are not known because phone lines are down and communication has been cut off in many areas.”
‘They could not even talk’
In remote northern Takhar, a dozen Afghan schoolgirls, all under 16, were trampled to death as they rushed to escape their classrooms when the quake struck.
Bystanders rushed the dazed and terrified survivors to hospital, many lying limp in the arms of their rescuers, as doctors tried reviving some of them by pumping their chests.
“When the relatives of the dead students came to collect their bodies, they were so distressed that they could not even talk to authorities to record their names,” said Hafizullah Safai, head of the Takhar health department.
The quake was centred near Jurm in north-east Afghanistan, 250km from the capital Kabul and at a depth of 213.5km, the US Geological Survey said.
The quake, which lasted at least one minute, shook buildings in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, sending thousands of frightened people rushing into the streets.
It was also felt in Tajikstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
Live footage from an Afghan news broadcast filmed in Kabul showed the anchor abandoning his desk as the quake shook the cameras.
Restaurants and office buildings emptied in Islamabad, with cracks appearing in some buildings but no major damage reported.
Hundreds of people in northern India poured onto the streets from office blocks, hospitals and homes.
In Delhi – more than 1,000km from the epicentre – the metro ground to a halt during the tremor.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took to Twitter immediately after the quake, saying that India stood ready to assist, including in Afghanistan and Pakistan if required.
Have no fears: Taliban to rescuers
The Taliban urged aid agencies Tuesday to push ahead in delivering emergency supplies to victims of the massive earthquake that hit remote mountainous regions of northern Afghanistan and Pakistan, killing at least 300 people.
With harsh winter weather setting in across the rugged Hindu Kush mountains where the earthquake struck, the plight of thousands of people left homeless by the earthquake was becoming increasingly serious.
“The Islamic Emirate calls on our good willed countrymen and charitable organizations to not hold back in providing shelter, food and medical supplies to the victims of this earthquake,” the Taliban said in a message of condolence to quake victims, using their formal name.
“And it similarly orders its mujahideen in the affected areas to lend their complete help.”
However, the relief effort is being complicated by unstable security caused by the Taliban insurgency, which has made large parts of the affected areas unsafe for international organizations and government troops.
“We have insufficient food and other aid,” said Abdul Habib Sayed Khil, chief of police in Kunar, one of the worst-hit Afghan provinces, where 42 people were confirmed dead.
“It has been raining for four days and the weather is very cold. If we don’t provide aid very soon it may turn to another disaster.”