The death toll from powerful earthquakes in western Afghanistan has crossed 2,000, a senior Taliban leader said, adding the number might rise further in one of the deadliest quakes to hit the country in two decades.
Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban spokesperson based in Qatar, told Al Jazeera that many people were missing and rescue operations were under way to save people trapped under the rubble in the wake of a magnitude 6.3 earthquake in Herat province.
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Shaheen said there was an urgent need for tents, medical and food items in the areas hit by the disaster, as he appealed to local businessmen and NGOs to come forward to help people in need.
On Sunday, people attempted to dig out the dead and injured with their hands in Herat, clambering over rocks and debris. Survivors and victims were trapped under buildings that had crumbled to the ground, their faces grey with dust.
One video, shared online, shows people freeing a baby girl from a collapsed building after being buried up to her neck in debris. A hand is seen cradling the baby’s torso as rescuers ease the child out of the ground. Rescuers said it was the baby’s mother. It is not clear if the mother survived.
The tragedy is very huge, we cannot define it to you in simple words
“Besides the 2,060 dead, 1,240 people are injured and 1,320 houses are completely destroyed,” said Abdul Wahid Rayan, spokesperson at the Ministry of Information and Culture.
About six villages have been destroyed and hundreds of civilians have been buried under the debris, he said, calling for urgent help.
The magnitude 6.3 earthquake hit 40km (24 miles) northwest of the city of Herat at about 11am on Saturday (06:30 GMT), according to the US Geological Survey (USGS). Strong aftershocks were felt in the neighbouring Badghis and Farah provinces.
A rescue volunteer, who did not want to be named, from Zenda Jan – the worst affected district located in Herat – said the search and rescue teams were not properly trained and lacked modern equipment.
“Unfortunately we have lost a lot of people in west of Herat in Zenda Jan and Ghorian districts,” he said.
“The tragedy is very huge, we cannot define it to you in simple words. People are still trapped in the debris, they are alive, but we cannot reach them.”
He urged the UN and other international organisations to provide Afghans with trained search and rescue teams, with modern equipment and rescue dogs to help find those still trapped inside.
Rescue operations under way
At least a dozen teams have been scrambled to help with rescue efforts, including from the military and non-profit organizations like the Red Crescent.
The United Nations migration agency has deployed four ambulances with doctors and psychosocial support counsellors to the regional hospital. At least three mobile health teams are on their way to the Zenda Jan district, which is one of the worst affected areas. The World Health Organization unit in Afghanistan said it dispatched 12 ambulances to Zendeh Jan to shift wounded people to hospitals.
Doctors Without Borders set up five medical tents at Herat Regional Hospital to accommodate up to 80 patients. Authorities have treated more than 300 patients, according to the agency.
Irfanullah Sharafzai, a spokesperson for the Afghan Red Crescent Society, said seven teams are busy with rescue efforts while other teams are arriving from eight nearby provinces.
“A temporary camp has been set up for people who have lost their houses and need shelter for now,” Sharafzai told The Associated Press. “Whatever is in our capacity we will do for our poor and needy people at this difficult time.”
In Herat city, resident Abdul Shakor Samadi said the quake was followed by at least five strong aftershocks at about noon.
“All people are out of their homes,” Samadi said. “Houses, offices and shops are all empty and there are fears of more earthquakes. My family and I were inside our home. I felt the quake.”
His family began shouting and ran outside, afraid to return indoors.
The USGS said the quake was followed by three strong aftershocks – magnitude 6.3, 5.9 and 5.5 – as well as weaker shocks.
The country’s national disaster authority said on Saturday the earthquake had killed about 100 people.
Later on Saturday, the United Nations gave a preliminary figure of 320 deaths. However, it later said the figure was still being verified, while the Red Crescent said 500 people were killed.
Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban-appointed deputy prime minister for economic affairs, offered his condolences to the victims’ families and those injured in the quake.
Afghan cricket star Rashid Khan said he was donating all his Cricket World Cup fees to help Herat’s earthquake survivors.
“Soon, we will be launching a fundraising campaign to call upon those who can support the people in need,” he told his 1.9 million followers on X, previously known as Twitter.
In June 2022, a powerful earthquake struck a rugged, mountainous region of eastern Afghanistan, flattening stone and mud-brick homes. It was Afghanistan’s deadliest earthquake in two decades, killing at least 1,000 people and injuring about 1,500.