Around 1,000 people dead and scores injured after powerful earthquake hits Afghanistan

Among the rubble and debris there is a desperate search for survivors, ITV News' Sejal Karia reports

A powerful earthquake has killed some 1,000 people and injured around another 1,500 in eastern Afghanistan, according to a state-run news agency.

On Wednesday morning, the 6.1 magnitude earthquake struck 27 miles from the south-eastern city of Khost, near the Pakistani border, the US Geological Survey said.

Photographs showed houses flattened to rubble and bodies swathed in blankets laying on the ground.

Footage showed men carrying people in blankets to waiting rescue helicopters, while others were treated on the ground.

One resident could be seen receiving IV fluids while sitting in a plastic chair outside the rubble of his home and others were sprawled on gurneys.

At least 2,000 homes have been destroyed in the region, where on average every home has seven or eight people living in it, the UN Deputy Special Representative to Afghanistan Ramiz Alakbarov told reporters.

Taliban fighters secured a government helicopter to evacuate injured people in Gayan district, Paktika province. Credit: Bakhtar News Agency via AP

The death toll given by the Bakhtar News Agency was equal to that of an earthquake that struck the northern part of the country in 2002.

Those are the deadliest since 1998, when a 6.1 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tremors in Afghanistan’s remote north-east region killed at least 4,500 people.

A majority of the confirmed deaths on Wednesday were in the eastern province of Paktika, interior ministry official Salahuddin Ayubi said.

Shaking was felt by some 119 million people in Pakistan, Afghanistan and India, according to the European Mediterranean Seismological Centre.

There are warnings that the death toll will rise further still without urgent government help.

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“A severe earthquake shook four districts of Paktika province, killing and injuring hundreds of our countrymen and destroying dozens of houses,” Bilal Karimi, a deputy spokesman for the Taliban government, wrote on Twitter.

“We urge all aid agencies to send teams to the area immediately to prevent further catastrophe.”

From Kabul, Prime Minister Mohammad Hassan Akhund convened an emergency meeting at the Presidential Palace to coordinate the relief effort for victims.

The earthquake struck early on Wednesday morning local time, with its epicentre near the city of Khost. Credit: Bakhtar News Agency via AP

Rescuers rushed to the area by helicopter, however rescue efforts are likely to be complicated since many international aid agencies left Afghanistan following the rapid Taliban takeover of the country last summer.

Earthquakes tend to cause serious damage in Afghanistan, where there are large swathes of rural areas over which dwellings are unstable or poorly constructed.

Reaching rural areas even in the best circumstances remains difficult in the landlocked nation which is just smaller than Texas, with rutted mountain roadways that may now have sustained significant damage.

People look at destruction caused by the earthquake in the province of Paktika Credit: Bakhtar News Agency via AP

The disaster is a major test for the Taliban, which seized power nearly 10 months ago as the US and its Nato allies prepared to pull out of the country.

It has been largely shunned by the world community since, with most governments wary of dealing with the Taliban directly, a reluctance that could slow the deployment of emergency aid and teams typically sent after such natural disasters.

In a rare move, the Taliban's reclusive supreme leader, Haibatullah Akhundzadah, who almost never appears in public, called for “the international community and all humanitarian organizations to help the Afghan people affected by this great tragedy."

“We ask God to save our poor people from trials and harm,” he said in a statement put out by the Taliban spokesman.

The “response is on its way,” the UN resident coordinator in Afghanistan, Ramiz Alakbarov, wrote on Twitter.

An Afghan villager collects his belongings from under the rubble of his home that was destroyed. Credit: AP

The disaster hits at a time when Afghanistan is already deep in one of the world's worst humanitarian crises, with millions facing increasing hunger and poverty after the cutoff of international financing to the Taliban.

That has prompted a massive aid program, but to avoid putting money in the Taliban's hands, the world has funneled funding through the UN and other humanitarian agencies - a system that may be too slow for an emergency response to the earthquake.

The Afghan Red Crescent Society has already sent some 4,000 blankets, 800 tents and 800 kitchen kits to the affected areas.

The Italian medical aid group Emergency, which still operates in Afghanistan, said it sent seven ambulances and staff to the areas closest to the quake zone.

“The fear is that the victims will increase further, also because many people could be trapped under collapsed buildings,” said Stefano Sozza, country director for Emergency in Afghanistan.

“This latest tragedy cannot but worsen further the condition of fragility and economic and social difficulties which Afghanistan has experienced for months," he added.

The children's agency UNICEF had health and nutrition teams in the area and sent trucks of blankets, tents and other supplies, Sam Mort, communications chief for UNICEF Afghanistan, told Sky News.

Regional hospitals were already overwhelmed with the injured, she said

The quake "will only add to the immense humanitarian needs in Afghanistan, and it really has to be all hands on deck to make sure that we really limit the suffering that families, that women and children are already going through,” Shelley Thakral, the UN World Food Program spokesperson in Kabul, said.