The Taliban’s supreme leader has appealed for international aid to help the victims of a deadly earthquake which left at least a thousand people dead in Afghanistan's eastern Paktika province.
In a rare move, 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 hit in the early hours of Wednesday morning in the rugged, mountainous region, flattening stone and mud-brick homes. The disaster posed a new test for Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers and relief agencies already struggling with the country’s multiple humanitarian crises.
The quake was Afghanistan’s deadliest in two decades, and officials said the toll could rise. An estimated 1,500 others were reported injured, the state-run news agency said.
The disaster heaps more misery on a country where millions face increasing hunger and poverty and the health system has been crumbling since the Taliban retook power nearly 10 months ago amid the US and NATO withdrawal. The takeover led to a cutoff of vital international financing, and most of the world has shunned the Taliban government.
Residents in the remote area near the Pakistani border searched for victims dead or alive by digging with their bare hands through the rubble, according to footage shown by the Bakhtar news agency. It was not immediately clear if heavy rescue equipment was being sent, or if it could even reach the area.
At least 2,000 homes were destroyed in the region, where on average every household has seven or eight people living in it, said Ramiz Alakbarov, the UN deputy special representative to Afghanistan.
The full extent of the destruction among the villages tucked in the mountains was slow in coming to light. The roads, which are rutted and difficult to travel in the best of circumstances, may have been badly damaged, and landslides from recent rains made access even more difficult.
Rescuers rushed in by helicopter, but the relief effort could be hindered by the exodus of many international aid agencies from Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover last August. Moreover, most governments are wary of dealing directly with the Taliban.
In a sign of the muddled workings between the Taliban and the rest of the world, Alakbarov said the Taliban had not formally requested that the UN mobilise international search-and-rescue teams or obtain equipment from neighboring countries to supplement the few dozen ambulances and several helicopters sent in by Afghan authorities.
Officials from multiple United Nations agencies said the Taliban were giving them full access to the area.