Desperate Afghan-Pakistan quake victims appeal for aid; death toll surpasses 360

Afghan men carry a coffin of an earthquake victim for burial in Behsud district of Nangarhar province, Afghanistan on Tuesday.
Afghan men carry a coffin of an earthquake victim for burial in Behsud district of Nangarhar province, Afghanistan on Tuesday.PHOTO: REUTERS

ISLAMABAD (AFP) - Desperate survivors appealed for food and blankets on Tuesday after a devastating earthquake killed more than 360 people in Pakistan and Afghanistan, as harsh weather, rugged terrain and pockets of militancy hampered rescue efforts.

The Afghan Taleban urged relief agencies to push ahead with aid deliveries to victims of Monday's powerful earthquake, which destroyed thousands of homes, triggered landslides and stampedes, and knocked out communication lines.

Mass burial ceremonies were conducted in both countries as officials warned that the death toll could spike as entire communities remain inaccessible amid freezing winter conditions.

Pakistani officials were unable to reach authorities in the remote district of Kohistan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province for a second day to see how its population of nearly half a million people had fared.

"There is no way to communicate with the officials in Kohistan, the communication lines have been disrupted and roads blocked so we cannot say anything about the damage there," a police official in the northwestern city of Peshawar said.

The bulk of the casualties recorded so far were in Pakistan, where 248 people were killed, including 202 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, and more than 1,600 injured, disaster management authorities said.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif flew to Shangla in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa - believed to be one of the worst-hit districts with 49 reported dead so far - where he pledged compensation for damaged homes, state media reported.

In Gandao village in Shangla the quake left homes completely flattened or riddled with cracks, forcing most of the population to camp out in the open amid freezing winter rain.

People desperately appealed to the government for quilts, blankets, sweaters and food rations as snowy conditions set in.

"We have nothing to eat and wear in the cold," resident Hakim Khan, 60, whose 12-year-old nephew was killed in the quake.

"My family members are forced to wait for help under the open sky."

Afghan officials said at least 115 people were confirmed dead and hundreds more injured, with casualties reported from around half a dozen of the country's 34 provinces, and more than 7,600 homes reported damaged.

In one of the most horrifying incidents to emerge so far, a dozen Afghan schoolgirls were trampled to death as they rushed to escape their classrooms in remote northern Takhar province when the quake struck.

Bystanders rushed the dazed and terrified survivors to hospital, many lying limp in the arms of their rescuers, as doctors tried reviving some of them by pumping their chests.

Flag-draped coffins arrived at a local cemetery on Tuesday as tearful relatives of the girls gathered for mass burials, as some of the survivors were flown in military choppers to Kabul for treatment.

"Children in earthquake-hit areas... are facing further deadly threats as extreme conditions and insecurity cut off communities from aid," the UN children's agency UNICEF said.

Large swathes of Badakhshan, the remote province where the epicentre is located, and other quake-stricken areas are effectively controlled by the Taleban, posing a huge challenge to any official aid efforts.

The growing presence of Taleban fighters is hindering access of aid workers to earthquake victims in urgent need of help, the head of a Western charity said.

But the militants Tuesday urged aid organisations not to hold back in delivering emergency relief, and vowed their fighters would provide "complete help" in the affected areas.

For many in Pakistan, Monday's quake brought back traumatic memories of a 7.6 magnitude quake that struck in October 2005, killing more than 75,000 people and displacing some 3.5 million.

Muzaffarabad resident Shehnaz Rasheed, 34, whose daughter was killed in the 2005 disaster, said that as the quake struck she feared "doomsday was being repeated".

"I ran towards my children's school leaving everything behind - I did not even close the doors of my house," she said, explaining she was frantic to reach her two sons so she could "die together with them if we have to die".

Authorities were struggling to ascertain the damage in the northern district of Chitral, where a local official said the quake had damaged the water supply system.

"Around 80,000 people don't have access to clean drinking water and it's our top priority to restore the water supply," he said.

In other remote areas residents - including children and the elderly - were helping with relief work, many of them digging through piles of rubble for survivors.

Pakistan army helicopters were evacuating victims Tuesday to the provincial capital Peshawar and Rawalpindi, which borders Islamabad.

The military has also sent medical teams, tents and rations to affected areas.

The quake was centred near Jurm in northeast Afghanistan, 250 kilometres from the capital Kabul and at a depth of 213.5 kilometres, the US Geological Survey said.

Afghanistan is frequently hit by earthquakes, especially in the Hindu Kush mountain range, which lies near the junction of the Eurasian and Indian tectonic plates.

In Nepal a quake in April and a strong aftershock in May killed more than 8,900 people.