Taliban say Afghanistan earthquake rescue efforts almost complete

Aid has started to arrive in a remote part of Afghanistan where an earthquake killed at least 1,000 people, as Taliban officials said the rescue operation was almost complete.

The magnitude 6.1 earthquake struck early on Wednesday about 160km (100 miles) southeast of Kabul, in arid mountains dotted with small settlements near the border with Pakistan.

Poor communications and a lack of proper roads are hampering relief efforts in a country already grappling with a humanitarian crisis which has escalated since the Taliban took over last August.

“The rescue operation has finished, no one is trapped under (the) rubble,” Mohammad Ismail Muawiyah, a spokesman for the top Taliban military commander in the hardest-hit Paktika province, told the Reuters news agency on Thursday.

Afghan people place their clothes to dry on dried out shrubs near the ruins of houses damaged by an earthquake in Bernal district, Paktika province
Afghan people place their clothes to dry on dried out shrubs near the ruins of houses damaged by an earthquake in Bernal district, Paktika province [Sahel Arman/AFP]

The United Nations said on Thursday the Taliban ministry of defence had indicated as early as Wednesday that 90 per cent of search and rescue operations had been completed.

The earthquake killed about 1,000 people and injured 1,500, Muawiyah said. More than 3,000 houses were destroyed.

The death toll makes it Afghanistan’s deadliest earthquake in 20 years, according to US government data.

About 1,000 people had been rescued by Thursday morning, Sharafat Zaman, a spokesperson for the health ministry, told Reuters news agency.

“Aid has arrived to the area and it is continuing but more is needed,” he said.

Speaking to Al Jazeera from Paktika province, journalist Ali Latifi said the situation on the ground was “really bad”.

“When you’re in these helicopters and you’re flying over these districts, you notice that they’re basically nestled in these mountains and in these hillsides that are all unpaved, rocky areas …  entire homes made of mud. Really poor areas where people have the most basic living standards,” he said.

“Even the nearest clinic to one of the districts we were in, they said it’s 30 minutes away – and even that is a private clinic which would cost a lot of money for people to go to. And again getting there is extremely difficult.”

Calls for aid

The response to the disaster is a major test for the Taliban, who took over as US-led international forces withdrew after two decades of war.

The humanitarian situation has deteriorated alarmingly since the Taliban takeover, aid officials say, with the country cut off from much international assistance because of sanctions.

Abdul Qahar Balkhi, spokesperson for the Afghan foreign ministry, on Thursday repeated calls for more international aid to be provided.

“We call on natural disaster management agencies and the international community to provide immediate and comprehensive aid to the Afghan people,” he posted on twitter.

Afghanistan’s economy has all but collapsed, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in an appeal to aid donors in late March.

Drought has undermined food production and 9 million Afghans face famine. Some families have been forced to sell children and organs to survive, he said.

Afghanistan Earthquake destruction
Afghans stand among destruction after an earthquake in Gayan village [Ebrahim Nooroozi/AP Photo]

UN chief Guterres said the global agency has “fully mobilised” to help, deploying health teams and supplies of medicine, food, trauma kits and emergency shelter to the earthquake zone.

The UN said its World Food Programme (WFP) was sending food and logistics equipment to affected areas, with the aim of initially supporting 3,000 households.

“The Afghan people are already facing an unprecedented crisis following decades of conflict, severe drought and an economic downturn,” said Gordon Craig, WFP deputy country director in Afghanistan.

“The earthquake will only add to the already massive humanitarian needs they endure daily.”

Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the United Arab Emirates all said on Thursday they plan to send aid. Supplies from neighbour Pakistan have already crossed the border.