Powerful earthquake kills at least 1,000 in Afghanistan

The death toll from the earthquake in Afghanistan is at least 1,000 dead, according to the government. The 5.9-magnitude quake hit southeastern Afghanistan overnight from Tuesday to Wednesday. “The death toll has reached 1,000 and this figure is increasing. People are digging grave after grave,” Paktika provincial information and culture chief Mohammad Amin Huzaifa said in a message to the press.

Earlier in the day, the Deputy Minister of Natural Disasters, Sharafuddin Muslim, had mentioned several hundred injured. Hundreds of homes have been destroyed and people are trapped inside. “We call on aid agencies to provide immediate aid to the victims of the earthquake in order to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe,” deputy government spokesman Bilal Karimi previously tweeted.

The earthquake, with a magnitude of 5.9, occurred at a depth of 10 km around 1:30 a.m. Wednesday, very close to the border with Pakistan, according to the American Seismological Institute (USGS). A second quake of magnitude 4.5 hit almost the same place at the same time, according to the USGS.

poor rural area

According to Yaqub Manzor, a tribal leader from Paktika, many of the injured were from Giyan district in the province. “Local markets are closed and people have rushed to help in affected areas,” he said by phone.

Photos posted on social networks show collapsed houses in the streets of a village, in this poor and difficult to access rural region. Videos also show residents of the affected areas loading the wounded into a helicopter.

Limited in number and capacity for a long time, the emergency services in Afghanistan are unsuited to dealing alone with a major natural disaster.

Felt as far as Kabul

The earthquake was felt in several provinces of the region, and also in the capital Kabul, located about 200 km north of the epicenter of the earthquake. It was also in neighboring Pakistan, but no damage or casualties were immediately reported there.

Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif said he was “deeply saddened” by this tragedy and indicated that the Pakistani authorities were working to provide support to their Afghan counterparts.

“The European Union is monitoring the situation […], and stands ready to coordinate and provide emergency assistance,” also tweeted his special envoy to Afghanistan, Tomas Niklasson. The UN has also said it is studying aid needs.

A sensitive area

Afghanistan is frequently hit by earthquakes, particularly in the Hindu Kush mountain range which lies at the junction between the Eurasian and Indian tectonic plates. These disasters can be particularly devastating due to the weak resilience of rural Afghan homes.

In October 2015, a powerful earthquake of magnitude 7.5 hit the Hindu Kush range, straddling Afghanistan and Pakistan, killing more than 380 people in these two countries. Among the Afghan victims were 12 young girls, trampled in a panic as they tried to get out of their tottering school.

Since coming to power in Kabul last August, Afghanistan has been plunged into a serious financial and humanitarian crisis, caused by the freezing of billions of assets held abroad and the sudden halt in international aid which carried the country at arm’s length for 20 years, and which is now coming back in dribs and drabs.

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