Afghanistan’s Taliban-led government has appealed for more international aid as it struggles to cope with the devastating earthquake in a mountainous eastern region that has left more than 1,000 people dead and many more injured.
With the war-ravaged nation already stricken by an economic crisis, the hardline Islamist leadership said sanctions imposed by western countries after the withdrawal of US-led coalition forces last year meant it was handicapped in its ability to deal with Wednesday’s disaster in Khost and Paktika provinces.
The death toll climbed steadily as news of casualties filtered in from hard-to-reach areas in the mountains, and the country’s supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, warned it would probably rise further on Thursday.
The earthquake struck areas that were already suffering the effects of heavy rain, causing rockfalls and mudslides that hampered rescue efforts.
As rescue teams and local people resumed digging through rubble with their hands on Thursday in the search for survivors, Mohammad Amin Huzaifa, the head of the information and culture department in Paktika, said: “People are digging grave after grave.”
Footage released by the Taliban showed residents digging a long slit trench to bury the dead. Huzaifa said more than 1,500 people were injured, many critically. “People are still trapped under the rubble,” he told journalists.
The disaster comes as Afghanistan grapples with a severe economic crisis that has gripped it since the Taliban takeover last year, and amid rapidly mounting concerns over the ability of the Taliban and international agencies to respond quickly.
While major international agencies still operate in Afghanistan, the Taliban takeover saw other agencies and governments reduce their assistance programmes in a country where about 80% of the budget came from foreign assistance.
Abdul Qahar Balkhi, a senior Taliban official, said the government “appreciated and welcomed” help that has been pledged by some other governments and relief agencies such as Médecins Sans Frontières and the Red Cross.
But the 5.9-magnitude earthquake – initially reported as magnitude 6.1, and the country’s deadliest for more than 20 years – had caused such widespread damage and suffering that more help was needed.
“The government sadly is under sanctions so it is financially unable to assist the people to the extent that is needed,” he said.
“The assistance needs to be scaled up to a very large extent because this is a devastating earthquake which hasn’t been experienced in decades.”
The United Nations secretary-general, António Guterres, said the global agency has “fully mobilised” to help, with UN officials confirming the deployment of health teams and supplies of medicine, food, trauma kits and emergency shelter to the quake zone.
Tomas Niklasson, the European Union’s special envoy for Afghanistan, tweeted: “The EU is monitoring the situation and stands ready to coordinate and provide EU emergency assistance to people and communities affected.”
Pakistan, where officials said one person was killed in the quake, said it would send emergency aid – including tents – across the border.
Médecins Sans Frontières said its teams in Khost and the Afghan capital Kabul were liaising with the Taliban government and other organisations about lending support.
“We know many of the healthcare facilities are under-resourced, and a natural disaster such as this will push the ones in the affected area to their limit,” MSF Afghanistan said in a tweet.
The British Red Cross said its teams were organising the dispatch of food, medicines, housing, water and temporary shelter to the region which lies close to the border with Pakistan. Intersos, a non-profit humanitarian aid organisation that works in Afghanistan, said the disaster could not have come at a worse time for Afghans and that the organisation’s “doctors and nurses will soon be on their way to support those in urgent need of emergency medical treatment”.
The disaster poses a huge challenge for the Taliban, who have largely isolated the country as a result of their hardline Islamist policies – particularly the subjugation of women and girls.
Even before the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan’s emergency response teams were stretched to deal with the natural disasters that frequently strike the country.
But with only a handful of airworthy planes and helicopters left since the Taliban returned to power, any immediate response to the latest catastrophe is further limited.
Karim Nyazai was in the provincial capital and returned immediately to find his village devastated and 22 members of his extended family dead.
“I was away from my family who live in a remote village in the Gyan district. I went there as soon as I could find a car in the early morning,” he told the Guardian.
“The entire village is buried. Those who could manage to get out before everything fell down were managing to take out the bodies of their loved ones out of the rubble. There were bodies wrapped in blankets everywhere.
“I lost 22 members of my [extended family] including my sister, and three of my brothers. More than 70 people in the village died.”
One survivor, Arup Khan, 22, who was pulled out of a collapsed guesthouse, described the moment the earthquake struck. “It was a horrible situation. There were cries everywhere. The children and my family were under the mud.”
The United States, whose troops helped topple the initial Taliban regime and remained in Afghanistan for two decades until Washington pulled them out last year, was “deeply saddened” by the earthquake, the White House said.
“President Biden is monitoring developments and has directed USAID (US Agency for International Development) and other federal government partners to assess US response options to help those most affected,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement.
Wednesday’s quake occurred at around 1.30am at a depth of 10km (six miles), about 47km south-west of Khost, according to the United States Geological Survey.
It was felt as far away as Lahore in Pakistan, 480km from the epicentre in Khost.