MINGORA, PAKISTAN – As the death toll in the massive earthquake that struck the remote Hindu Kush mountains soared above 300, officials on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border warned on Tuesday that casualty figures will likely leap once relief workers return from villages so remote they can only be accessed on foot or by donkey.
Rescuers in both countries were struggling to reach quake-stricken regions as officials said the combined death toll from Monday’s earthquake rose to 376.
Authorities said 258 people died in Pakistan and 115 in Afghanistan in the magnitude-7.5 quake, which was centered in Afghanistan’s sparsely populated Badakhshan province that borders Pakistan, Tajikistan and China. Three people died on the Indian side of the disputed region of Kashmir.
The earthquake, with its epicenter close to the Badakhshan district of Jarm, damaged many of the few existing roads, officials said. Dropping aid by air will be the only way to reach many of the needy, but those operations were not likely to start for many days until survey teams on foot return and report on the damage.
The Pakistani town closest to the epicenter is Chitral.
Monday’s quake shook buildings in the capital, Islamabad, and cities elsewhere in Pakistan and Afghanistan for up to 45 seconds in the early afternoon, creating cracks in walls and causing blackouts.
The earthquake destroyed more than 7,600 homes across Afghanistan and injured 558 people, according to a statement from President Ashraf Ghani’s office after he had met with disaster management officials. He ordered the military to make assets available for the relief effort.
Badakhshan Gov. Shah Waliullah Adeeb said more than 1,500 houses there were either destroyed or partially destroyed. The province’s casualty figures of 11 dead and 25 injured “will rise by the end of the day, once the survey teams get to the remote areas and villages,” Adeeb said.
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.
Afghan authorities said they were scrambling to access the hardest-hit areas near the epicenter, located 73 km (45 miles) south of Fayzabad, the capital of Badakhshan province.
Badakhshan is one of the poorest areas of Afghanistan and frequently hit by floods, snowstorms and mudslides. Its valleys and mountains make access to many areas by road almost impossible at the best of times. It often has big earthquakes, but casualty figures are usually low because it is so sparsely populated, with fewer than 1 million people.
The Taliban issued a statement calling on all Afghans “not to hold back in providing shelter, food and medical supplies” to earthquake victims and said its fighters would also lend a hand.
The insurgents, fighting to overthrow the Kabul government for 14 years, have built a presence in northern provinces this year, notably in Badakhshan. Some districts, including Jarm, have been seized briefly by Taliban gunmen. Officials have said it is part of their strategy to take control of strategically insignificant areas to force the Afghan government to spread its military resources ever-thinner in the fight to defeat the insurgency.
In Pakistan, the picturesque Swat Valley and areas around Dir, Malakand and Shangla towns in the mountains of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province were hard-hit by the earthquake. Officials said 202 of the dead were killed in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
More than 2,000 people were injured in Monday’s temblor, which also damaged more than 4,000 homes in Pakistan, officials said.
Pakistan’s military said in a statement that engineers succeeded in reopening portions of the Karakoram Highway blocked by landslides caused by the quake. It allowed authorities to begin transporting relief supplies to affected areas in the northern regions, where dozens were killed and hundreds of others left homeless.
Helicopters and military planes were transporting relief supplies and military engineers were working on restoring communication lines disrupted by landslides, said Lt. Gen. Asim Saleem Bajwa, the army spokesman.
A magnitude-7.6 quake hit Pakistan on Oct. 8, 2005, killing more than 80,000 people and leaving more than 3 million homeless, most of them in the northwest of the country and in the divided region of Kashmir.
That quake was much shallower — 10 km (6 miles) below the surface of the earth, compared to the depth of 213 km (130 miles) on Monday — and thus caused greater damage, said Mohammad Hanif, an official at the Meteorological Department.
In the Swat Valley town of Mingora, resident Jamal Ali Shah said the earthquake “was like the day of judgment.” He sobbed as he sat outside his damaged home with his belongings around him, fearing the building would collapse in an aftershock.
In Peshawar, Asghar Ali said his 55-year-old father was walking in the street Monday when bricks from a building hit him in the head.
“People tried to take my father to the hospital but there was a chaos everywhere and traffic was blocked,” he said. “My father died before he could be taken to the hospital.”
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visited the earthquake-hit town of Shangla in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where at least 49 people were killed and 80 injured. He said his government would soon announce a relief package to help quake victims.
In Afghanistan’s Takhar province, 12 students at a girls’ school were killed in a stampede as they fled a shaking building.
Sonatullah Taimor, a spokesman for the governor of Takhar province, said so far authorities had recorded 14 deaths, including the schoolgirls. More than 50 were injured and 200 houses destroyed. He said food, blankets and tents were in short supply, though people had been warned to sleep outside — in near-freezing temperatures — in case of aftershocks.