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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Taliban says 2,400 killed after earthquake ravages western Afghanistan

Afghan residents clear debris from a damaged house after an earthquake in Sarbuland village of Zendeh Jan district of Herat province, Afghanistan, on Saturday.  (Mohsen Karimi/AFP)
By Rick Noack and Haq Nawaz Khan Washington Post

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – One day after powerful earthquakes struck western Afghanistan, officials said Sunday that more than 2,400 people were killed and thousands injured, with the death toll likely to rise.

“Many are still trapped,” said Haji Janan Saiq, a spokesman for the Taliban-run Ministry of Disaster Management who announced the toll. Several villages have “completely perished,” according to Saiq, as the full extent of one of the deadliest natural disasters in Afghanistan in decades became increasingly clear.

Hundreds of people were hospitalized in and around the city of Herat, the provincial capital close to the epicenter, said health official Muhammad Talib Shahid, pushing medical resources there to the brink of collapse. There still appeared to be limited international assistance 24 hours after the quake. The United Nations and NGOs said ambulances were on their way and that aid workers had begun to distribute emergency tents, clothes and medicine.

The initial earthquake, a 6.3 magnitude, hit the surroundings of Herat on Saturday morning, severely damaging or destroying almost 2,000 homes, according to the government. Local officials later reported powerful aftershocks.

After initial assessments from local officials indicated limited damage Saturday, the death toll surged as rescue efforts continued overnight.

Baz Muhammad Sarwari, a Herat resident, said he was on the second floor of a building in the earthquake zone when it started shaking. “I haven’t experienced such a powerful earthquake in my whole life,” he said.

While footage on social media on Saturday showed chaotic scenes in Herat, one of Afghanistan’s most populous cities, the damage was most severe to the west of the city, near the border with Iran. Most of the deaths were reported from villages around 25 miles from the city center, the U.N. and local officials said, where cellphone access continued to be disrupted Sunday.

Afghan officials said the epicenter was in two districts, Zinda Jan and Ghurian, where mud brick houses collapsed within seconds of the initial earthquake, leaving residents with no time to escape.

One man was still holding onto what rescuers believed to be his daughter when the two were found dead under the rubble, according to footage shared with the Washington Post by the Afghan Ministry of Disaster Management.

First responders compared the destruction to the damage caused by the quake that struck eastern Afghanistan last year, killing more than 1,000 people and raising questions at the time about the internationally isolated Taliban government’s ability to respond to major disasters quickly and effectively.

Taliban officials appeared intent Sunday on portraying themselves as in control of the situation. Abdul Ghani Baradar, a senior Taliban leader, said that authorities dispatched helicopters to the earthquake epicenter within half an hour, state-run broadcaster RTA reported.

At least 10 search teams were sent to the earthquake zone, said disaster management official Saiq. Government members in Kabul announced 100 million Afghanis, the equivalent of 1.3 million dollars, in emergency aid.

But in Herat, which is not among the most earthquake-prone Afghan cities, locals observed an improvised response. Farid Ahmad, a resident, said authorities had to block lanes in the city on Sunday to allow ambulances to reach hospitals.

Taliban officials appealed to businesses to supply food and rescue equipment, and could be seen loading donated shovels and other equipment into their vehicles as they prepared to head to the epicenter of the quake. Locals joining the search and rescue effort dug for survivors with their bare hands.

Among the first volunteers to arrive was 32-year old Ghulam Mehboob, who rushed to one of the devastated villages within hours of the first earthquake, hoping to be able to rescue people trapped under the rubble.

After he and others dug out dozens of bodies but no survivors, Mehboob said he abandoned the effort on Sunday and returned to Herat.

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Nawaz Khan reported from Peshawar, Pakistan.