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Hundreds die as Afghanistan reels from deadly earthquake

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Several hundred people have been killed in an earthquake in western Afghanistan, Taliban officials said, one of the deadliest natural disasters to hit the isolated country in years.

The 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck an area near Herat, close to Afghanistan’s western border with Iran, on Saturday. The initial quake was followed by several aftershocks and reduced villages in the area to rubble, forcing panicked residents into the street to escape collapsing buildings.

Efforts to account for casualties have been complicated by the lack of state capacity and aid agencies in the region.

Suhail Shaheen, head of the Taliban’s political office in Qatar, told the Financial Times on Sunday that at least 1,000 people were dead and 2,000 more injured. “The number is increasing hour by hour,” he said. “There’s a need for food, tents and medicines. Whole villages and houses of people have been destroyed.”

Reuters and the Associated Press on Sunday quoted separate Taliban officials saying that the death toll had risen to about 2,000 people.

The mountainous country of 40mn is prone to earthquakes, and decades of war and poverty have left its infrastructure ill-equipped to cope. More than 1,000 people died in an earthquake in June 2022.

The Taliban’s difficulty in responding to disasters has been compounded by Afghanistan’s international isolation.

Since the Taliban retook power following a two-decade war with Nato-backed forces, international sanctions have devastated the economy. The UN Development Programme said Afghanistan was now among “the poorest two or three countries in the world”.

The Taliban have also alienated international donors with a brutal crackdown on women’s freedoms, including banning education for girls, as well as restricting the ability of female aid workers to operate.

This has exacerbated a severe shortfall in humanitarian aid in the country. The UN has so far only raised about 25 per cent of the more than $3bn it estimates the country needs this year. 

The UN said on Saturday that people were probably still trapped under collapsed buildings. It said the World Health Organization, Red Crescent and others “have initiated relief efforts, deploying medical and trauma support to regional hospitals, as well as emergency shelter . . . food assistance and other supplies to the affected areas”.

Shaheen said he would be appealing to the international community for assistance. People “need houses to be rebuilt for them”, he said. “But that’s a long-term programme. On an urgent basis, [we need] food items.”

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