KABUL • The Taliban urged the international community to step in and help with relief and rescue efforts following Wednesday's devastating earthquake in the south-east of the country.
"This incident was just a tragedy and Afghanistan cannot alone respond to a natural disaster of such scale. We have less resources and we've asked the international aid agencies and countries for help," said Taliban spokesman Bilal Karimi by phone.
The government has sent rescue helicopters and officials to the affected areas, but it has been difficult to access some of the locations "since they are mountainous or have terrible roads", he said.
There is also a lack of hospitals and the authorities are "trying to transfer the injured to hospitals in Kabul and nearby provinces", Mr Karimi added.
The 5.9-magnitude earthquake hit Afghanistan's remote south-east in the early hours of Wednesday, killing at least 1,000 people and injuring hundreds more, even as the country battles multiple humanitarian crises.
The eastern Paktika province - home to some of the country's most impoverished farmers and cattle herders - was the worst hit, said several officials from the Taliban government. Casualties and damage were also reported in nearby Khost and Nangahar provinces, which border Pakistan.
The earthquake was the worst natural disaster to hit the nation since a landslide in 2014 killed 2,000 people in the north-eastern Badakhshan province.
The town of Gayan, close to the epicentre, sustained significant damage from the earthquake, with most of its mud-walled buildings damaged or completely collapsed, a Reuters team said. The town, which has only the most basic roads, was bustling with Taliban soldiers and ambulances as a helicopter bringing in relief supplies landed nearby.
The rescue operation will be a major test for the hardline Taliban, who took over last August 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.
On Wednesday, the US expressed sorrow over the earthquake and said it would look for ways to help, including through potential talks with Taliban rulers.
"The United States is deeply saddened to see the devastating earthquake that took the lives of at least 1,000 people in Afghanistan," said National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.
"President (Joe) Biden is monitoring developments and has directed USAid and other federal government partners to assess US response options to help those most affected," he said, referring to the US Agency for International Development.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US was in touch with humanitarian groups active in Afghanistan that receive support from Washington.
The earthquake comes nearly a year after Mr Biden ended the US military's involvement in Afghanistan, with Taliban insurgents quickly taking over the country. The US has engaged in talks but refused to recognise the Taliban government, saying it wants to see progress on key US priorities including the treatment of women.
Elsewhere, the United Nations 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 Mr Gordon Craig, WFP deputy country director in Afghanistan. "The earthquake will only add to the already massive humanitarian needs they endure daily."
The European Union was also quick to offer assistance. Mr Tomas Niklasson, EU special envoy for Afghanistan, tweeted: "The EU is monitoring the situation and stands ready to coordinate and provide EU emergency assistance to people and communities affected."
Neighbouring Pakistan, where officials said one person was killed in the quake, said it would send emergency aid, including tents, across the border.
The Japanese government also plans to provide assistance. Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Seiji Kihara told a regular news conference that the government was coordinating moves to "provide necessary support promptly", as well as assessing the situation to grasp local needs.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG, REUTERS