By FAZEL RAHMAN FAIZI
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A powerful earthquake struck a rural, mountainous region of eastern Afghanistan early Wednesday, killing at least 920 people and injuring 600 others in the deadliest tremor in two decades, authorities announced. Officials warned that the already grim toll was likely to rise.
Reports remained sparse about the 6.1 magnitude earthquake near the Pakistani border, but quakes of this strength are expected to cause severe damage in the remote region, where homes and other buildings are poorly constructed and landslides land are common.
Rescue efforts are likely to be complicated as many international aid agencies left Afghanistan after the country was taken over by the Taliban last year and the chaotic withdrawal of the US military from the longest war of its history. Rescuers rushed to the scene by helicopter.
The nearby Pakistan Meteorological Service said the quake’s epicenter was in Afghanistan’s Paktika province, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) southwest of the city of Khost. Buildings were also damaged in Khost province. The US Geological Survey, which recorded a magnitude just below 5.9, estimated the depth at just 10 kilometers (6 miles) – another factor that could increase the damage.
Footage from Paktika showed people being transported in helicopters to be airlifted out of the area. Others were treated on the ground. One resident could be seen receiving intravenous fluids as he sat in a plastic chair outside the rubble of his home and still others lay on stretchers. Some footage showed residents digging through clay bricks and other rubble in destroyed stone houses.
The toll, given by Afghan emergency official Sharafuddin Muslim, made it the deadliest quake since 2002, when a magnitude 6.1 earthquake killed around 1,000 people in northern Afghanistan immediately after. that the US-led invasion overthrew the Taliban government following the September 11 attacks.
Earlier, the managing director of state-run Bakhtar news agency, Abdul Wahid Rayan, wrote on Twitter that 90 houses were destroyed in Paktika and dozens of people were trapped under the rubble.
“We urge all aid agencies to immediately dispatch teams to the region to avert further disasters,” Bilal Karimi, deputy Taliban government spokesman, wrote on Twitter.
In Kabul, Prime Minister Mohammad Hassan Akhund called an emergency meeting at the presidential palace to coordinate the relief effort for victims in Paktika and Khost.
The “response is on its way,” UN resident coordinator in Afghanistan Ramiz Alakbarov wrote on Twitter.
In a statement, Pakistani Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif expressed condolences over the earthquake, saying his country would provide aid to the Afghan people. At the Vatican, Pope Francis offered prayers for all those killed and injured and for the “suffering of the dear Afghan people”.
In a single district of Khost province, the earthquake killed at least 25 people and injured more than 95 others, local officials said.
Some remote parts of Pakistan reported damage to homes near the Afghan border, but it was not immediately clear whether this was due to rain or the earthquake, said Taimoor Khan, spokesman for the management of the disasters in the region.
The European seismological agency, EMSC, said tremors from the quake were felt 500 kilometers (310 miles) by 119 million people across Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
Mountainous Afghanistan and the larger region of South Asia along the Hindu Kush Mountains have long been vulnerable to devastating earthquakes.
In 2015, a major earthquake that hit the northeast of the country killed more than 200 people in Afghanistan and neighboring northern Pakistan. In 1998, a magnitude 6.1 earthquake and subsequent tremors in the remote northeast of Afghanistan killed at least 4,500 people.
Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez and Munir Ahmed in Islamabad and Jon Gambrell and Isabel DeBre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.