More than 260 people were killed by a powerful earthquake that rocked northern and Pakistan on Monday, with officials warning that the death toll would rise as rescue workers reach isolated valleys in the coming days.
Measuring 7.5 magnitude, the prolonged tremors were some of the worst the region has experienced in recent years and were felt hundreds of miles away from the epicentre in north-east Afghanistan.
At least 228 people were killed in , with more than 1,000 injured, while Afghan officials reported 33 dead and more than 200 injured, and authorities in the Indian-controlled Kashmir region reported two deaths.
The Afghan death toll included 12 schoolgirls caught in a stampede to escape a school building in the northern city of Taluqan, close to the epicentre. “They fell under the feet of other students,” said Abdul Razaq Zinda, head of the Afghan National Disaster Management Agency, who reported heavy damage in Takhar province.
Panicked office workers in large cities in Pakistan and India rushed into the streets shortly after the quake began at 2.09pm local time, while much of the electricity supply in the Afghan capital, Kabul, collapsed.
It was in the region’s far-flung, tenuously connected and often impoverished mountain communities where the cost in human life was expected to be highest.
Many areas had already been deluged by two days of unseasonably heavy rain and snowfall, helping to loosen the ground and trap tourists who had been visiting the beauty spots of the Gilgit-Baltistan region in Pakistan over the weekend.
“Things are not looking in our favour,” said Pervez Khattak, chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the north-western province where 121 people were killed. “The provincial government was trying to build up the infrastructure in these areas but this earthquake came all of sudden. I fear for more deaths in Upper Chitral, Dir and other areas.”
Among those initially reported to have been killed in Chitral, an isolated former princely state near Afghanistan, were passengers travelling to a wedding party when their four-wheel-drive vehicle was hit by falling boulders from the steep mountainsides.
“In Chitral it was just so shocking – we are so close to the epicentre,” said Asadullah Ghalib, a local resident. “There have been landslides, extensive damage to infrastructure and a lot of old houses have been completely damaged.”
There were also reports of schools collapsing in Sargodha and Dir as well as many houses in the Swat valley.
Mujahid Khan, a Peshawar spokesman for the Edhi Foundation, a leading Pakistani charity, said three buildings had collapsed in the city.
“I thought it was the last moment of my life,” said Khair Ullah, a 15-year-old recovering from head wounds in Lady Reading hospital, Peshawar, after being buried under rubble when a wall in his home collapsed. “At the first shake the whole wall came down and I couldn’t move because I was sitting underneath it.”
Staff said more than 100 wounded people had been admitted to the hospital.
One patient, a 28-year-old called Ajmal, was being treated for a broken foot after he fell down a flight of stairs in the complex of shops where he owns a mobile phone repair business.
“I was working on a phone when suddenly a shockwave hit the building,” he said. “There was total panic and in the rush of people I fell down from the third floor.”
Straddling an active continental plate boundary, the region is often hit by earthquakes. In September 2013, a 7.7 magnitude quake struck Balochistan province in Pakistan, killing about 800 people.
The epicentre of Monday’s quake in Jurm in north-east Afghanistan was just a couple of hundred miles from the site of the 7.6 magnitude quake in October 2005 that killed up to 80,000 people in Pakistan, and displaced millions of others.
Although almost as powerful, Monday’s quake was not as devastating because the hypocentre (or focus) was far deeper underground, seismologists said.
Rescue teams were hampered by bad weather and road blocks caused by landslides and falling debris, including on the Karakorum highway, the strategically valued land route to China.
Military units were ordered to immediately start rescue work on their own initiative without waiting for orders from higher up their chain of command.
Afghanistan will be particularly challenged to reach all of the far-flung populations affected where communications have been cut off by the collapse of mobile phone networks.
“Initial reports show a big loss of life, huge financial losses in Badakhshan, Takhar, Nangarhar, Kunar and other regions, including Kabul,” said Afghanistan’s chief executive officer, Abdullah Abdullah. “Exact numbers are not known because phone lines are down and communication has been cut off in many areas.”
Pakistan’s information minister, Pervez Rashid, said the country had the situation under control and would not issue any appeals for international assistance.
“We have enough resources to handle the situation,” he told a press conference. “Our top priority is to help those affected because of the earthquake.”
Earlier in the day, Narendra Modi, prime minister of India, had offered to help the victims of the earthquake in Pakistan.