The supreme leader of the Taliban has appealed for international assistance to help the victims of a deadly earthquake that killed at least a thousand people in the province of Paktika, in eastern Afghanistan.
In a rare gesture, Haibatullah Akhundzadah, who almost never appears in public, pleaded with the international community and humanitarian organizations “to help the Afghan people affected by this great tragedy and to spare no effort”.
The 6.1 magnitude earthquake struck in the early hours of Wednesday morning in the rugged and mountainous region, flattening stone and mud-brick houses. The disaster was a new test for Afghan Taliban leaders and relief agencies already grappling with the country’s multiple humanitarian crises.
The quake was Afghanistan’s deadliest in two decades, and officials said the toll could rise. About 1,500 other people were reportedly injured, the state news agency said.
The disaster is adding to the misery of a country where millions of people face growing hunger and poverty and where the health system has collapsed since the Taliban regained power nearly 10 years ago. months amid the withdrawal of the United States and NATO. The takeover cut off vital international funding, and most of the world shunned the Taliban government.
Residents of the remote area near the Pakistani border searched for dead or alive victims by digging with their bare hands through the rubble, according to footage carried by the Bakhtar news agency. It was not immediately clear if heavy rescue equipment was being dispatched, or if it could even reach the area.
At least 2,000 homes have been destroyed in the area, where each household averages seven or eight people, said Ramiz Alakbarov, the UN’s deputy special representative in Afghanistan.
The extent of the destruction among the villages nestled in the mountains was slow to become apparent. Roads, which are rutted and difficult to navigate at the best of times, may have been badly damaged, and landslides from recent rains have made access even more difficult.
Rescuers rushed in by helicopter, but the relief effort could be hampered by the exodus of many international aid agencies from Afghanistan after the Taliban took power last August. Moreover, most governments are reluctant to deal directly with the Taliban.
In a sign of the confused working between the Taliban and the rest of the world, Alakbarov said the Taliban had not officially requested the UN to mobilize international search and rescue teams or obtain equipment from neighboring countries to supplement the few dozen ambulances and several helicopters sent by the Afghan authorities.
Officials from several UN agencies said the Taliban were giving them full access to the area.