At least 12 people were killed in Afghanistan and Pakistan by a strong earthquake felt across thousands of kilometres, but the region appeared Wednesday to have dodged the mass casualties usually associated with a tremor of such scale.
The United States Geological Survey said the magnitude 6.5 quake was centred near Jurm in northeastern Afghanistan, but the depth of 187 kilometres (116 miles) mitigated extensive damage.
The quake, which struck around 09:30 pm (1700 GMT) Kabul time on Tuesday and lasted more than 30 seconds, was felt from central Asia to New Delhi in India — more than 2,000 km away.
“It was a powerful earthquake and we feared maximum damage due to the intensity — that’s why we issued an alert,” Bilal Faizi, a spokesman for Pakistan’s emergency Rescue 1122 service in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, told AFP.
“But fortunately our fears proved wrong. Residents panicked due to the magnitude of the earthquake, but the damage was minimal.”
The region is frequently hit by quakes — especially in the Hindu Kush mountain range, which lies near the junction of the Eurasian and Indian tectonic plates.
– ‘Stayed awake’ all night –
In Jurm district, near the epicentre, a resident of one village reported no casualties despite the location.
“We are about 2,000 to 3,000 people in our village and we all spent the night outside under the sky,” said Inamullah, reached by phone.
“We were all scared and stayed awake the entire night.”
Panicked residents of cities and towns in Afghanistan and Pakistan also fled their homes to seek safety away from buildings — with many too scared to return.
“We stayed the night in our courtyard… it was cold outside, but we preferred to stay out rather than go back,” 24-year-old student Neda Raihan told AFP in Kabul.
Khudadad Heights, a vast multi-storey residential block in the Pakistan capital, was evacuated after huge cracks appeared in the building.
Over 55,000 people were killed by an earthquake that struck southeastern Turkey and parts of Syria last month, heightening fears across the region.
“The children started shouting that there is an earthquake. We all ran out. The horrors of the earthquake in Turkey and neighbouring countries had a strong effect on our nerves,” said Ikhlaq Kazmi, a retired professor in the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi.
Officials in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, north of the Pakistan capital, said nine people had been killed in the quake, including two women and two children.
– High alert –
In Afghanistan, officials reported three dead and 44 injured — but phone and internet links to remote parts of the country had been severed and communication patchy.
Government spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said health centres across the country had been put on high alert.
In the Afghan capital Kabul, shopkeeper Noor Mohammad Hanifi set up tents in the street for his family to spend the night in.
“Nobody dares to go inside their homes,” Hanifi told AFP as his family, cloaked in blankets, took shelter.
In Afghanistan, many families were out of their homes celebrating Nowruz, the Persian New Year, when the quake struck.
“I heard people screaming and yelling as they came out in the streets,” said Masieh, who was outside with his family when the tremor hit.
“It’s possible that there could be another tremor so I’m still waiting outside.”
Those indoors also quickly left their houses and apartments.
“They just fled without wearing shoes, just carrying their children in their hands,” an AFP correspondent said.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif ordered the National Disaster Management Authority to be ready to deal with any emergency.
Last June more than 1,000 people were killed and tens of thousands made homeless after a 5.9-magnitude quake — the deadliest in Afghanistan in nearly a quarter of a century — struck the impoverished province of Paktika.
Afghanistan is in the grips of a humanitarian disaster made worse by the Taliban takeover of the country in August 2021.
International development funding on which the South Asian country relied dried up after the takeover and assets held abroad were frozen.