Kabul: The death toll from an overnight earthquake in Afghanistan has reached at least 1,000, with more than 1,500 injured and the toll is expected to grow as information trickles in from remote mountain villages, an official from one of the worst-hit provinces said Wednesday.
"The number is increasing. People are digging grave after grave," Mohammad Amin Huzaifa, head of the Information and Culture Department in Paktika, said in a message to journalists.
Photographs on Afghan media showed houses reduced to rubble, with bodies swathed in blankets lying on the ground.
Helicopters were deployed in the rescue effort to reach the injured and fly in medical supplies and food, said an interior ministry official, Salahuddin Ayubi.
"The death toll is likely to rise as some of the villages are in remote areas in the mountains and it will take some time to collect details."
Wednesday's quake was the deadliest since 2002. It struck about 44 km (27 miles) from the southeastern city of Khost, near the border with Pakistan, the US Geological Survey (USGC) said.
Most of the confirmed deaths were in the eastern province of Paktika, where 255 people were killed and more than 200 injured, Ayubi added. In the province of Khost, 25 were dead and 90 had been taken to hospital.
Haibatullah Akhundzada, the supreme leader of the ruling Taliban, offered his condolences in a statement.
Mounting a rescue operation could prove a major test for the Taliban, who took over the country in August and have been cut off from much international assistance because of sanctions.
Shaking was felt by about 119 million people in Pakistan, Afghanistan and India, the EMSC said on Twitter, but there were no immediate reports of damage or casualties in Pakistan.
The EMSC put the earthquake's magnitude at 6.1, though the USGC said it was 5.9.
Adding to the challenge for Afghan authorities is recent flooding in many regions, which the disaster agency said had killed 11, injured 50 and blocked stretches of highway.
The disaster comes as Afghanistan grapples with a severe economic crisis since the Taliban took over, as US-led international forces withdrew following two decades of war.
In response to the Taliban takeover, many nations imposed sanctions on Afghanistan's banking sector and cut billions of dollars worth of development aid.
Humanitarian aid has continued, however, with international agencies, such as the United Nations, operating.
The UN's office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) said Afghanistan had asked humanitarian agencies to help with rescue efforts, and teams were being despatched to the quake-hit area.
A spokesman of Afghanistan's foreign ministry said it would welcome international help. Neighbouring Pakistan said it was working to extend assistance.
Tremors felt in Pakistan and India
Neighbouring Pakistan's Meteorological Department put the earthquake at a magnitude 6.1. Tremors were felt in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, and elsewhere in the eastern Punjab province.
Some remote areas of Pakistan saw reports of damage to homes near the Afghan border, but it wasn't immediately clear if that was due to rain or the earthquake, said Taimoor Khan, a disaster management spokesperson in the area.
Pakistan's Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif in a statement offered his condolences over the earthquake, saying his nation will provide help to the Afghan people.
The European seismological agency, EMSC, said the earthquake's tremors were felt over 500 kilometers (310 miles) by 119 million people across Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
Vulnerable to devastating earthquakes
Mountainous Afghanistan and the larger region of South Asia along the Hindu Kush mountains, where the Indian tectonic plate collides with the Eurasian plate to the north, has long been vulnerable to devastating earthquakes. Poor construction for homes, hospitals and other buildings put them at risk of collapse in earthquakes, while landslides remain common across the mountains of Afghanistan.
◉ 1991, HINDU KUSH: Earthquake in the rugged Hindu Kush killed 848 people across Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Soviet Union.
◉ 1997, QAYEN: A magnitude 7.2 quake on the border of Afghanistan and Iran killed more than 1,500 in both countries, and completely destroyed more than 10,000 homes.
◉ FEB 1998, TAKHAR: The earthquake in the remote northeastern province of Takhar killed at least 2,300 people, with some estimates ranging as high as 4,000.
◉ MAY 1998, TAKHAR: A second quake of magnitude 6.6 in the same region killed 4,700 in the same region just three months later.
◉ 2002, HINDU KUSH TWIN QUAKES: Twin earthquakes in the Hindu Kush in March 2002 killed a total of 1,100.
◉ 2015, HINDU KUSH: A quake of magnitude 7.5, one of the largest in Afghanistan's recorded history killed a total of 399 people in Afghanistan and neighbours Pakistan and India.