Rescuers struggle to reach quake-hit areas in Pakistan, Afghanistan

Thousands of families spent night outdoors in near-freezing temperatures; death toll from earthquake tops 340

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Rescuers were struggling to reach quake-stricken regions in Pakistan and Afghanistan on Tuesday, hoping to provide aid to victims of a massive earthquake that has killed more than 340 people.

Thousands of families spent the night outdoors in near-freezing temperatures reluctant to go back inside for fear of aftershocks, Pakistani media reported on early on Tuesday.

“Rescue work is ongoing, and tents, blankets and sleeping mats are being provided,” Latif ur Rehman, a Pakistani disaster management official, told Reuters from the northwestern city of Peshawar.

Pakistan's military and civilian authorities dispatched several helicopters to affected areas to assess damage and run rescue operations, the National Disaster Management Authority said.

The total death toll stood at 343 with at least 260 people killed in Pakistan and at least 83 more in Afghanistan, according to official reports from the two countries. Three people died on the Indian side of the disputed region of Kashmir. More than 2,000 people have been injured. 

The death toll could climb in coming days, amid fears that many more people may have been killed but not yet been accounted for due to broken communications in the Hindu Kush mountain range where the quake was centered.

In Pakistan, the Swat Valley and areas around the Dir, Malakand and Shangla towns in the mountains of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province were also hard-hit.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif cut short his visit to the United Kingdom to fly home to deal with the emergency. “We will try our best to deal with this disaster using our own resources,” he said.

Meanwhile, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani urged his countrymen to help those in need. “I demand all Afghans, my fellow countrymen, to help each other if they are in the affected areas,” he said. 

Afghan authorities said they were struggling to reach the hardest-hit areas near the magnitude 7.5 earthquake’s epicenter, located 45 miles south of Fayzabad, the capital of Badakhshan province.

Large swaths of Badakhshan, one of Afghanistan's poorest provinces, are effectively controlled by the Taliban, posing a huge challenge to any official aid efforts. 

But the Taliban released a statement Tuesday calling on its members to help the relief effort and telling aid agencies not to “hold back” in supplying food, shelter and medical supplies to victims.

“The Islamic Emirate calls on our good-willed countrymen and charitable organizations to not hold back in providing shelter, food and medical supplies to the victims,” the group said in a condolence message to quake victims, using its formal name.

Earthquakes often hit Badakhshan, 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.

Badakhshan Gov. Shah Waliullah Adeeb said more than 1,500 houses there were either destroyed or partially destroyed. Food and other essentials were ready to go, he said, but "getting there is not easy." Many people in stricken areas were sleeping outdoors, braving freezing temperatures for fear of aftershocks.

Recovery challenges

Hundreds of houses were destroyed in Monday’s earthquake, creating additional hardships with winter temperatures setting in.

Hikmat Fasi, a resident of Parwan Province in northern Afghanistan, said the quake caused a lot of damage in the area.

“We are safe, but I saw a lot of buildings collapse,” Fasi said. “It [the earthquake] caused severe damage to our area. We are just praying.”

Strong tremors were also felt in the Indian and Pakistani capitals, New Delhi and Islamabad, residents said, as authorities in the two neighboring countries issued warnings for strong aftershocks. The quake was also felt in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

The initial magnitude 7.5 quake on Monday afternoon was followed by several aftershocks, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The U.S. and Iran were among countries that offered to provide humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan.

John Ebel, chairman of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Boston College in the U.S., said the depth of the earthquake, at 132 miles, had limited its severity and meant damage was likely to be spread broadly rather than focused in one disaster zone.

But he said landslides on the unstable slopes of the mountainous region could pose a major problem.

The region is prone to earthquakes. Monday’s struck almost exactly six months after Nepal suffered its worst quake, on April 25.

In 2005, a magnitude-7.6 quake in Pakistan killed more than 80,000 people and left more than 3 million homeless, most of them in the northwest of the country and in the divided region of Kashmir.

But that quake was much shallower than Monday's, just 6 miles below the surface.

Al Jazeera and wires services

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