Afghanistan’s Taliban-led government has called for more international aid as it struggles to cope with a devastating earthquake in a mountainous eastern region that has left more than 1,000 dead and many more injured.
With the war-torn nation already wracked by an economic crisis, hardline Islamist leadership said sanctions imposed by Western countries after the withdrawal of US-led coalition forces last year meant their ability to to deal with Wednesday’s disaster in Khost and Paktika was hampered. provinces
The death toll rose steadily on Wednesday as news of casualties filtered in from hard-to-reach areas in the mountains, and the country’s supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, warned it was likely to rise further.
The quake hit areas already suffering from heavy rains, causing rockfalls and landslides that hampered rescue efforts.
Mohammad Amin Huzaifa, head of Paktika’s information and culture department, described the aftermath as people dug through the rubble to retrieve the dead and wounded: “People are digging grave after grave.”
Images released by the Taliban showed residents digging a long trench to bury the dead. Huzaifa said more than 1,500 people were injured, many seriously. “People are still trapped under the rubble,” he told reporters.
The disaster comes as Afghanistan grapples with a severe economic crisis that has gripped it since the Taliban took power last year, and amid growing concerns about the ability of the Taliban and international agencies to respond quickly. .
While major international agencies still operate in Afghanistan, the Taliban takeover prompted other agencies and governments to scale back their aid programs in a country where roughly 80% of the budget came from foreign assistance.
Abdul Qahar Balkhi, a senior Taliban official, said the government “appreciated and welcomed” aid promised by other governments and aid agencies such as Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross.
But the 5.9-magnitude quake, initially reported as 6.1 and the country’s deadliest in more than 20 years, had caused such widespread damage and suffering that more help was needed.
“Unfortunately, the government is under sanctions, so financially it is unable to help people to the extent that it is needed,” he said.
“Assistance needs to be greatly expanded because this is a devastating earthquake that has not been experienced in decades.”
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said the global agency has been “fully mobilized” to help, with UN officials confirming the deployment of health teams and supplies of medicine, food, trauma kits and shelter. emergency in the earthquake 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 emergency EU assistance to affected people and communities.”
Pakistan, where authorities said one person was killed in the quake, said it would send emergency aid, including tents, across the border.
Doctors Without Borders said its teams in Khost and the Afghan capital Kabul were in contact with the Taliban government and other organizations to provide support.
“We know that many of the health centers lack resources, and a natural disaster like this will push those in the affected area to the limit”, MSF Afghanistan he said in a tweet.
the British Red Cross said his teams were organizing the delivery of food, medicine, shelter, water and temporary shelter to the region near the Pakistani border. Intersos, a nonprofit humanitarian aid organization working in Afghanistan, said the disaster could not have come at a worse time for Afghans and the organization’s “doctors and nurses will soon be on their way to help those in need of care.” urgent medical emergency”. treatment”.
The disaster poses a major challenge to the Taliban, who have largely isolated the country as a result of their hardline Islamic policies, particularly the subjugation of women and girls.
Even before the Taliban took power, Afghanistan’s emergency response teams were stretched thin in dealing with the natural disasters that regularly hit the country.
But with only a handful of planes and helicopters airworthy since the Taliban returned to power, any immediate response to the latest catastrophe is even more limited.
Karim Nyazai was in the provincial capital and immediately returned to find his village devastated and 22 members of his extended family dead.
“I was away from my family who lives in a remote village in Gyan district. I went there as soon as I could find a car early in the morning,” she told The Guardian.
“The whole town is buried. Those who managed to get out before everything collapsed were managing to pull 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 died in the town.”
One survivor, 22-year-old Arup Khan, who was pulled from a collapsed guest house, described the moment the quake struck. “It was a horrible situation. There were screams 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 withdrew them last year, was “deeply saddened” by the earthquake, the White House said.
“President Biden is monitoring developments and has directed USAID (United States Agency for International Development) and other federal government partners to evaluate the response options of the United States to help those most affected,” said the adviser to national security Jake Sullivan in a statement.
Wednesday’s quake struck around 1:30 am at a depth of 10 km (six miles), about 47 km southwest of Khost, according to the US Geological Survey.
It was felt as far away as Lahore in Pakistan, 480 km from the epicenter in Khost.