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Afghanistan earthquake kills more than 1,000, injures 1,600, officials say

Afghans try to help the injured in Paktika province. (Bakhtar News Agency/AP)
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SHARANA, Afghanistan — Heavy rain and strong winds were frustrating search and rescue efforts late Wednesday after a massive earthquake struck eastern Afghanistan, killing more than 1,000 and injuring more than 1,600, government officials said.

A sudden downpour washed away roads leading to some of the hardest-hit areas in Paktika province, according to doctors at the main hospital in the capital city of Sharana. “There are hundreds injured still in their villages without aid or shelter, but they cannot leave because of the flooded roads,” said one of the doctors, Kamran Khan.

Khan added that 10 ambulances are stuck in a district where hundreds of homes were flattened. The storms also grounded rescue helicopters for several hours Wednesday.

Safia, a 2-year-old being treated for a concussion at the Sharana hospital, lost 18 members of her family in the village of Bermal. Only her mother and grandfather survived.

The quake brought the roof of their home crashing down, but one of the beams fell at an angle, shielding Safia from the falling rubble.

“When I climbed out, I saw my village destroyed,” said Abdulhanan Wazir, Safia’s grandfather. Crowds quickly formed to help dig families out. “The mosques in neighboring villages made announcements telling people where to go to help,” he said.

As he buried his relatives, he said he counted more than a hundred other families laying entire households to rest.

“My village is finished,” he said.

The earthquake’s epicenter was in the mountainous area near the country’s border with Pakistan — about 27 miles from the city of Khost — according to the U.S. Geological Survey, which put the magnitude at 5.9.

The toll from the quake makes it one of the deadliest the country has seen in decades, and is the first major natural disaster since the Taliban swept to power in Kabul last summer after the withdrawal of U.S. military forces.

Maulawi Sharafuddin Muslim, the acting deputy minister of the country’s disaster management authority, said at a news conference that “some villages have been completely destroyed.” He said an emergency cabinet meeting had been convened and that Afghanistan’s prime minister was leading the coordination of rescue and relief efforts.

A helicopter landed in Afghanistan's remote Paktika province on June 22 to transport those injured by an earthquake that has killed more than 1,000 people. (Video: Reuters)

Authorities will allocate about $11 million in aid, Muslim said, with about $1,000 to be given to families of the dead and $500 each to the injured.

A Taliban government spokesman, Bilal Karimi, tweeted that the country would welcome help from international organizations. “All aid agencies are urged to send their teams to the area immediately so that further catastrophe can be prevented,” he said.

At a news conference Wednesday in New York, Ramiz Alakbarov, the U.N. resident coordinator in Afghanistan, said the United Nations has allocated $15 million to deal with the crisis. He added that the United Nations is working to distribute aid packages to displaced families but that it would be the responsibility of the “de facto authorities” to take charge of the recovery mission.

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The United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, issued a statement saying it had deployed staff to the most affected areas in Paktika and Khost. “Currently the focus is on search and rescue operations to find survivors,” the statement read. “There are fears that more lives could be lost if survivors are not reached urgently in remote parts of the country.”

Amir Hakim Tanai, a Kabul-based official with the International Red Cross in Afghanistan, said workers were on their way to assist in the rescue efforts, while the U.N. Children’s Fund said it was dispatching mobile health and nutrition teams to provide first aid to the injured.

“We don’t yet know the full extent of the devastation, but we believe hundreds of people have been killed, including many women and children,” said Mohamed Ayoya, the UNICEF representative in Afghanistan. “These numbers are expected to grow as reports continue to come in.”

Few countries have recognized the Taliban’s government since it came to power in August amid the rapid departure of U.S. and other Western forces. The group has implemented ultraconservative social policies and restricted the rights of women and girls, deepening its international isolation and leaving it cut off from most foreign aid.

Persistent poverty and drought have put millions of lives at risk. A May report from the United Nations found that childhood malnutrition is on the rise and that nearly half of Afghans do not have enough to eat. With neither the international community nor the Taliban taking responsibility for the country’s hunger crisis, its people have been left to suffer.

In a statement released Wednesday by the White House, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the United States is working with humanitarian partners to deliver medical care and other supplies to Afghanistan. “President Biden is monitoring developments and has directed USAID and other federal government partners to assess U.S. response options to help those most affected,” the statement read.

On Twitter, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “The earthquake in Afghanistan is a great tragedy, adding to an already dire humanitarian situation. We grieve for all the lives lost and the hardships Afghans continue to face.”

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The epicenter of Wednesday’s quake was about 300 miles northeast of where a 2008 earthquake killed 166 people.

Tremors were felt in India and Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, and the provincial capital of Peshawar, according to Pakistan’s National Seismic Monitoring Center, but no severe damage or casualties were reported.

Pakistan’s prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif, tweeted that he was “deeply grieved” by the disaster.

“People in Pakistan share the grief & sorrow of their Afghan brethren,” he said, adding that Pakistani authorities also were working to support those affected.

Tsui reported from Washington, Suliman from London, Khan from Peshawar, Pakistan, and Hussain from Islamabad.