Kabul/Islamabad: A massive earthquake struck remote and impoverished regions of northern Afghanistan and Pakistan on Monday, killing at least 280 people as it shook buildings across South Asia and knocked out power and communications to already-isolated areas.
The 7.5-magnitude quake was centered deep beneath the Hindu Kush mountains in Afghanistan’s sparsely populated Badakhshan province, which borders Pakistan, Tajikistan and China, the US Geological Survey said.
In the Afghan capital of Kabul, buildings shook for up to 45 seconds, walls cracked and cars rolled in the streets as electricity went out. Frightened workers who had just returned from lunch also rushed from swaying buildings in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad and to the south in the Indian capital of New Delhi.
“I was praying when the massive earthquake rattled my home. I came out in a panic,” said Munir Anwar of Liaquat Pur in Pakistan’s eastern Punjab province.
At least 228 people were killed in Pakistan, with more than 1,000 injured, while Afghan officials reported 33 dead and more than 200 injured, and authorities in the Indian-controlled Kashmir region reported two deaths. Officials expected the casualty toll to rise as they reached the remote areas.
Authorities struggled to reach the hardest-hit areas in Afghanistan near the epicenter, located 73 kilometers (45 miles) south of Fayzabad, the capital of Badakhshan province.
Abdul Humayoon Dehqan, the head of the National Disaster Management Authority’s provincial office, said he knew of only 12 dead and 20 injured in the province, mostly in collapsed buildings, and that his teams would not reach affected areas until Tuesday morning to get a better count.
Despite vast mineral deposits, Badakhshan is one of Afghanistan’s poorest provinces. It is often hit by earthquakes, but casualty figures are usually low because it is so sparsely populated, with fewer than 1 million people spread across its vast mountains and valleys. It also suffers from floods, snowstorms and mudslides.
Taliban-led insurgents have used its remote valleys as cover recently to seize districts as they spread their footprint across the country. Dehqan said some districts remain under Taliban control “and we don’t know how we will be able to help people in those areas.”
In Takhar province, west of Badakhshan, 12 students at a girls’ school were killed in a stampede as they fled shaking buildings, said Sonatullah Taimor, the spokesman for the provincial governor. Another 42 girls were taken to a hospital in the provincial capital of Taluqan.
Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah convened an emergency meeting of disaster officials and urged them to ensure that people were prepared for aftershocks. That could mean many hundreds would be forced to sleep outdoors in nighttime temperatures dropping below freezing. He instructed doctors and hospitals to be prepared to receive casualties.
President Ashraf Ghani sent condolences to those who lost relatives and property and appointed an “assessment committee” to ensure emergency relief reached the needy as soon as possible, his office said.
The US said it has emergency shelters and relief supply kits stored in warehouses throughout Afghanistan that could be used.
White House spokesman Josh earnest says the U.S. government has been in touch with officials in Afghanistan and Pakistan and is ready to provide any additional support.
Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was completing a trip to the U.S., said in a televised comment from London that he planned to fly to the quake-affected region Tuesday. He called the quake a “tragedy,” saying most of the casualties and damage were reported in remote areas in the country’s northwest.
Pakistan’s army chief, Gen Raheel Sharif, ordered troops to the areas, the military said.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had contacted Sharif to offer help, Pakistani state-run media said. Pakistani TV said Sharif thanked Modi for the offer but provided no further details.