A magnitude 6.3 earthquake hit western Afghanistan on Saturday killing 15 and injuring dozens more, officials said, predicting the toll could rise after reports of landslides and victims trapped under collapsed buildings.
The United States Geological Survey said the epicentre was 40 kilometres (25 miles) northwest of the region’s largest city Herat, and was followed by seven aftershocks with magnitudes between 4.6 and 6.3.
Crowds of residents fled buildings in the city at around 11:00 am (0630 GMT) as the quakes began, lasting just under three hours.
“We were in our offices and suddenly the building started shaking,” 45-year-old Herat resident Bashir Ahmad told AFP.
“Wall plasters started to fall down and the walls got cracks, some walls and parts of the building collapsed.”
“I am not able to contact my family, network connections are disconnected. I am too worried and scared, it was horrifying,” he said.
Men, women and children stood out in the wide streets, away from tall buildings, in the moments after the first quake and remained wary of returning to homes as aftershocks continued.
“The situation was very horrible, I have never experienced such a thing,” said 21-year-old student Idrees Arsala, the last to safely evacuate his classroom as the quakes began.
In a video statement, National Disaster Management Authority spokesman Mullah Jan Sayeq said “around 40” had been injured in tremors felt across three provinces, in addition to 15 killed.
“These are the preliminary numbers. There is the possibility the numbers could increase,” he said.
Earlier in the day he told AFP there had been landslides in nearby rural and mountainous areas.
Public health director of Herat province Mohammad Taleb Shahid put the fatality figure slightly lower at 14, with 78 injured, but agreed the tally would likely rise.
“We have information that people are buried under rubble,” he told AFP.
– ‘Significant casualties likely’ –
Hundreds of fatalities were possible, according to a USGS preliminary report.
“Significant casualties are likely and the disaster is potentially widespread. Past events with this alert level have required a regional or national level response,” it said.
The USGS had earlier reported the first quake’s magnitude as 6.2. It had a shallow depth of just 14 kilometres, it said.
Herat — 120 kilometres east of the border with Iran — is considered the cultural capital of Afghanistan.
It is the capital of Herat province which is home to an estimated population of 1.9 million, according to 2019 World Bank data.
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 June last year, more than 1,000 people were killed and tens of thousands left homeless after a 5.9-magnitude quake — the deadliest in Afghanistan in nearly a quarter of a century — struck the impoverished province of Paktika.
In March of this year, 13 people were killed in Afghanistan and Pakistan by a magnitude 6.5 quake, which hit near Jurm in northeastern Afghanistan.
Afghanistan is already in the grip of a grinding humanitarian crisis, following the widespread withdrawal of foreign aid since the Taliban returned to power in 2021.