Aid began arriving yesterday in a remote part of Afghanistan where an earthquake killed at least 1,000 people, with Taliban officials saying that the rescue operation was almost complete.
The magnitude 6.1 earthquake struck early on Wednesday about 160km (100 miles) southeast of Kabul, in arid mountains dotted with small settlements near the border with Pakistan.
The earthquake downed mobile phone towers and power lines while triggering rock and mudslides which blocked mountain roads.
Entire villages have been levelled in some of the worst affected districts, where survivors said they were struggling to find equipment to bury their dead.
Poor communications and a lack of proper roads are hampering relief efforts in a country already grappling with a humanitarian crisis which has deteriorated since the Taliban took over last August.
“The rescue operation has finished, no one is trapped under (the) rubble,” Mohamed Ismail Muawiyah, a spokesman for the top Taliban military commander in the hardest-hit Paktika province, told Reuters.
Mohamed Nassim Haqqani, a spokesperson for the disaster ministry, told Reuters that rescue operations had finished in major districts but are continuing in some isolated areas.
The United Nations said yesterday the Taliban ministry of defence had indicated as early as Wednesday that 90% of search and rescue operations had been completed.
Two retired officers in Nepal involved in the aftermath of the 2015 quake that killed 9,000 people expressed surprise that the rescue operation could be close to completion so soon, but one noted that if most damaged homes were small, it was possible.
The earthquake killed about 1,000 people and injured 1,500, Muawiyah said.
More than 3,000 houses were destroyed.
The death toll makes it Afghanistan’s deadliest earthquake in two decades, according to US government data.
About 1,000 people had been rescued by morning yesterday, Sharafat Zaman, a spokesperson for the health ministry, told Reuters.
“Aid has arrived to the area and it is continuing but more is needed,” he said.
The town of Gayan, close to the epicentre, sustained significant damage with most of its mud-walled buildings damaged or completely collapsed, a Reuters team said.
The town, with only the most basic roads, was bustling with Taliban soldiers and ambulances as a helicopter bringing in relief supplies landed nearby, whipping up huge swirls of dust.
About 300 people sat on the ground waiting for supplies.
The rescue operation will be a major test for the Taliban, who took over as US-led international forces withdrew after two decades of war.
The humanitarian situation has deteriorated alarmingly since the Taliban takeover, aid officials say, with the country cut off from much international assistance because of sanctions.
Abdul Qahar Balkhi, spokesperson for the Afghan foreign ministry, repeated calls yesterday for international aid.
“We call on natural disaster management agencies and the international community to provide immediate and comprehensive aid to the Afghan people,” he said in a tweet.
Afghanistan’s economy has all but collapsed, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in an appeal to aid donors in late March.
Drought has undermined food production and 9mn Afghans face famine.
Some families have been forced to selling children and organs to survive, he said.
The United Nations said that its World Food Programme (WFP) is sending food and logistics equipment to affected areas, with the aim of initially supporting 3,000 households.
“The Afghan people are already facing an unprecedented crisis following decades of conflict, severe drought and an economic downturn,” said Gordon Craig, WFP deputy country director in Afghanistan. “The earthquake will only add to the already massive humanitarian needs they endure daily.”
Survivors in Bermal district, a collection of remote mountain villages, said they were struggling to find equipment to dig graves.
“We did not have even a shovel to dig ... so we used a tractor. We buried 60 people yesterday and 30 more are still remaining to be buried. People are working continuously,” said Ghurziwal. “There are no blankets, tents, there’s no shelter. Our entire water distribution system is destroyed. Everything is devastated, houses are destroyed. There is literally nothing to eat.”
An AFP correspondent reported a military helicopter flying over villages devastated by the earthquake in Bermal.
Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the United Arab Emirates all said yesterday that they plan to send aid.
Supplies from neighbour Pakistan have already crossed the border.
Large parts of South Asia are seismically active because a tectonic plate known as the Indian plate is pushing north into the Eurasian plate.
In 2015, an earthquake struck the remote Afghan northeast, killing several hundred people in Afghanistan and nearby northern Pakistan.
A child walks out from inside a gate of a house damaged by an earthquake in Bernal district, Paktika province.