Aid groups and hospital officials provided a lower number of confirmed fatalities. The Afghan Red Crescent Society cautioned that it remained difficult to verify the full extent of the damage, with a spokesman for the aid group, Irfanullah Sharafzoi, putting the death toll at 400. Muhammad Talib Shahid, a health official in the western Afghan city of Herat, said 250 bodies of victims had been brought to hospitals close to the epicenter of the quake. Over 600 people have been hospitalized, he said.
Afghan officials compared the destruction to the damage caused by the quake that struck eastern Afghanistan last year, killing more than 1,000 people and injuring more than 1,600, according to government officials — one of the deadliest natural disasters in Afghanistan in decades that raised questions about the internationally isolated Taliban government’s ability to respond to such a major disaster quickly and effectively.
Taliban officials appeared intent Sunday on portraying themselves as in control of the situation. Abdul Ghani Baradar, a senior Taliban leader, said that authorities dispatched helicopters to the earthquake epicenter within half an hour and that emergency services continued rescue operations throughout the night, RTA reported.
The initial earthquake, which had a 6.3 magnitude, hit the surroundings of Herat on Saturday morning, destroying more than 450 houses and injuring hundreds, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in an initial damage assessment Saturday night. Local officials later reported powerful aftershocks.
While footage on social media on Saturday showed chaotic scenes in Herat, one of Afghanistan’s most populous cities, the damage was most severe to the west of the provincial capital. Most of the deaths were reported from villages around 25 miles from the city center, the U.N. and local officials said.
Afghan officials said the epicenter appeared to have been near two districts, Zinda Jan and Ghurian, where mud brick houses collapsed within seconds of the initial earthquake, leaving residents with no time to escape.
Baz Muhammad Sarwari, a resident, said he was on the second floor of a building in the earthquake zone when it started shaking. “I haven’t experienced such a powerful earthquake in my whole life,” he said.
Nawaz Khan reported from Peshawar, Pakistan.