Massive Afghan quake jolts region; 220 dead, nearly 900 injured

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Kabul/Islamabad (dpa) – A massive earthquake in a remote part of the Hindu Kush mountain range in north-eastern Afghanistan sent tremors rippling through Pakistan and India, leaving scores dead and hundreds injured in inaccessible areas.

As night fell, Pakistani officials said the death toll had crossed 150, and at least 700 people were injured. In Afghanistan, at least 69 were killed and more than 170 injured.

Officials in both countries have warned that the number of casualties could rise significantly as information on the extent of the loss of lives and damage was only trickling in, with communication widely disrupted, and many areas still inaccessible because of landslides and damaged roads.

The 7.5-magnitude quake struck at 1:39 pm (0909 GMT) at a depth of 213 kilometres, the US Geological Survey said, with its epicentre 48 kilometres south-south-west of Jarm, Afghanistan.

There was panic on the streets of Kabul, Islamabad and New Delhi, as tens of thousands of people fled swaying buildings, power lines collapsed, mobile networks went down, and underground trains were closed.

The government in Kabul – 256 kilometres north-north-east of the epicentre – declared a state of emergency, said Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.

He said the worst-affected Afghan provinces were Badakhshan, Takhar, Kunar, Nangarhar as well as Kabul.

Twelve girls were killed in stampede at a school in Takhar.

“The girls were killed due to panic and trying to escape the building, 39 other students are injured,” said Hafizullah Sapai, director of the public health hospital in Takhar province.

Sapai said the injured were taken to hospital, but he could not provide further information on their condition.

The toll in neighbouring Pakistan alone crossed 150. Most of the deaths were reported in the north-western province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, said Reema Zuberi, a spokeswoman for the National Disaster Management Authority.

The military and civilian agencies were mounting a massive rescue operation in the worst-hit north to assess the scale of the tragedy, Information Minister Pervaiz Rasheed said.

Damaged roads were being repaired to reach victims in areas still inaccessible in the mountains, he added.

At least 700 people injured people were being treated in hospitals in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Chief Minister Pervaiz Khattak said.

In the eastern Afghan province of Kunar alone “42 people are dead and 67 have been wounded,” said Abdul Habib Sayedkhel, provincial police chief.

He said “2,039 houses have been destroyed,” and fears are that number of casualties will rise in the following hours and days.

Fourteen people were wounded in Takhar, said Sunnatullah Timor, the governor’s spokesman.

Shah Wali Adib, the governor of Badakhshan province, said at least nine people were killed and 20 injured, with 1,427 houses destroyed.

Ahamad Sardar Sarwari, a provincial council member from Badakhshan, said: “Sixty houses have been destroyed in Soch village of Jarm district, at the centre of the quake.”

Some 80 per cent of the village of Gamdum Qul in Kishm district was destroyed because of a landslide, Sarwari said.

Landslides triggered by the quake blocked the main highway connecting Pakistan and China, the blockade leaving thousands of travellers and vehicles stranded in remote areas.

The Karakoram Highway in northern Pakistan was sealed off at multiple points, national roads authority chief Shahid Tarir said.

In the remote district of Kohistan on the main highway connecting Pakistan with China, Adeel Ahmed was driving his passenger van with 16 people on board when they suddenly saw rocks sliding down the mountains.

“It was so scary,” said the 27-year-old, who was taking passengers from the Pakistani capital Islamabad to the northern city of Skardu. “The velocity at which the rocks were coming down was so high that we though we were going to be swept away.”

“I stopped the vehicle and we all started reciting verses from the Koran … We heard women and children screaming and running out of their mud houses in the mountains on the other side of the river,” he said, from Chakwal town in Punjab.

Police in Indian-administered Kashmir said two women died after suffering heart attacks during the earthquake. Two Indian Army soldiers were injured when a bunker was damaged.

State police said several buildings and bridges in major towns in Kashmir developed cracks because of the quake, which rattled large parts of northern India.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi immediately offered help to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“I have asked for an urgent assessment and we stand ready for assistance where required, including Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Modi said.

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