The 5.9-magnitude quake struck hardest in the rugged east, where people already lead hardscrabble lives amid a humanitarian crisis made worse since the Taliban takeover in August.
“People are digging grave after grave,” said Mohammad Amin Huzaifa, head of the Information and Culture Department in hard-hit Paktika, adding that at least 1,000 people had died in that province alone.
He said more than 1,500 people were injured, many critically.
“People are still trapped under the rubble,” he told journalists.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the global agency has “fully mobilised” to help, deploying health teams and supplies of medicine, food, trauma kits and emergency shelter to the quake zone.
The toll climbed steadily Wednesday as news of casualties filtered in from hard-to-reach areas in the mountains, and the country’s supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, warned it would likely rise further.
The earthquake struck areas that were already suffering the effects of heavy rain, causing rockfalls and mudslides that hampered rescue efforts.
“It was a horrible situation,” said Arup Khan, 22, recovering at a hospital in Paktika’s provincial capital Sharan.
“There were cries everywhere. The children and my family were under the mud.”
‘Like a tsunami’
Sharan Hospital director Mohammad Yahya Wiar said they were doing their best to treat everyone.
“Our country is poor and lacks resources,” he told AFP. “This is a humanitarian crisis. It is like a tsunami.”
Photographs and video posted on social media showed scores of badly damaged houses in remote areas. The UN humanitarian coordinator for Afghanistan, Ramiz Alakbarov, told reporters nearly 2,000 homes are likely destroyed.
Footage released by the Taliban showed people in one village digging a long trench to bury the dead, who by Islamic tradition must be laid to rest facing Mecca.
The disaster poses a huge challenge for the Taliban, who have largely isolated the country with their hardline Islamist policies — particularly the subjugation of women and girls.
Even before the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan’s emergency response teams were stretched to deal with the natural disasters that frequently strike the country.
But with only a handful of airworthy planes and helicopters left since they returned to power, any immediate response to the latest catastrophe is further limited.
“The government is working within its capabilities,” tweeted Anas Haqqani, a senior Taliban official.
“We hope that the International Community & aid agencies will also help our people in this dire situation.”
Offers of help
The United States, whose troops helped topple the initial Taliban regime and remained in Afghanistan for two decades until Washington pulled them out last year, was “deeply saddened” by the earthquake, the White House said.
“President Biden is monitoring developments and has directed USAID (US Agency for International Development) and other federal government partners to assess US response options to help those most affected,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said in a statement.
The European Union was also quick to offer assistance.
Tomas Niklasson, EU special envoy for Afghanistan, tweeted: “The EU is monitoring the situation and stands ready to coordinate and provide EU emergency assistance to people and communities affected.”
Neighbour Pakistan, where officials said one person was killed in the quake, said it would send emergency aid — including tents — across the border.
Prayers for victims
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.
Scores of people were killed in January when two quakes struck the western province of Badghis.
In 2015, more than 380 people were killed in Pakistan and Afghanistan when a 7.5-magnitude earthquake ripped across the two countries.
Afghanistan’s deadliest recent earthquake killed 5,000 in May 1998 in the northeastern provinces of Takhar and Badakhshan.
From the Vatican, Pope Francis offered prayers for victims of the latest quake.
“I express my closeness with the injured and those who were affected,” the 85-year-old pontiff said concluding his weekly audience.
The quake struck in the early hours of Wednesday at a depth of 10 kilometres (six miles), according to the United States Geological Survey.
It was felt as far away as Lahore in Pakistan, 480 kilometres from the epicentre.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited and is published from a syndicated feed.)