A major rescue operation to save those thought to be buried under fallen buildings is underway in Pakistan after a series of earthquakes struck the south-west and killed at least 170 people. Hundreds more have been injured, an estimated 15,000 are homeless and the death toll could rise further.
A quake measuring 6.4 on the Richter scale struck close to the city of Quetta, in Baluchistan, early yesterday morning, wrecking mud-built homes and triggering landslides. Later in the afternoon, another quake measuring 6.2 struck the same region, leaving residents terrified of more jolts.
"The situation is bad. There has been another tremor here and it was very strong," said Khalid Gill, an Oxfam official, speaking from Quetta. "People were jumping from the second floors of buildings and I think a lot of people have been injured. Everyone is very scared. Many are sleeping outside tonight."
The greatest devastation – and the epicentre – appears to have occurred in Ziarat, a former British hill station about 65 miles from Quetta. A handful of villages and some 2,000 homes were reduced to rubble as the quake shook the scenic valley. "There is great destruction. Not a single house is intact," said Dilawar Kakar, the mayor of Ziarat. He made a public appeal for medical aid, blankets for cold weather and basic supplies.
In the village of Wam, another of the badly affected communities, a rescue worker, Abdul Rahim Ziyawal, said: "The village has been flattened. You can't see a house still standing. There's destruction everywhere."
The quakes are the latest of Pakistan's woes. The country is six days from defaulting on its debt and has turned to the International Monetary Fund for relief after abortive efforts to solicit funds from its handful of allies. At the same time, the recently elected civilian government is under increasing pressure to confront militants blamed for cross-border attacks on Western troops in Afghanistan and on Pakistani targets.
Yesterday, the US ambassador to Pakistan was summoned to the foreign ministry in Islamabad in protest at Washington's inflammatory policy of launching unilateral air strikes into the tribal areas in pursuit of such militants. There have been some 19 such strikes since this summer after the US decided to increase the number of operations.
Baluchistan is vast, remote and thinly populated. With many roads blocked, the emergency effort is being led by the Pakistani military which has dispatched helicopters carrying troops and medical teams. Relief camps have already been set up for thousands of people.
Farooq Ahmad Khan, head of the regional disaster authority, said 2,000 houses had been destroyed and that teams were hurriedly working to put up shelters for up to 3,000 people in a region where the temperature was forecast to fall to zero overnight.
The International Committee of the Red Cross also sent two teams to the area. "Aftershocks have continued which we think will force the population to stay outside, and the weather is cold," said an ICRC spokeswoman, Carla Haddad.
Much of the effort to rescue people trapped beneath the rubble of their mud and timber homes has been made by other villagers, sometimes with nothing more than their hands or simple tools. The dead were being buried in mass graves, dug by mechanical excavators.
Survivors have been taken to hospitals in the provincial capital, Quetta, and other nearby towns. One patient at the city's Civil Hospital, Raz Mohammed, said he had been woken to the sound of his children crying. He then felt a jolt. "I rushed toward them but the roof of my own room collapsed and the main iron support hit me," he said. "That thing broke my back and I am in severe pain but, thank God, my children and relatives are safe."
The region's first, gentle, tremor struck at around 4.30am local time, followed about 45 minutes later by the much stronger quake. Reports said there were more than a dozen subsequent aftershocks during the day, including the powerful quake yesterday afternoon that sent people in Quetta fleeing from their homes.
More than 75,000 people were killed when an earthquake, rated at 7.8, hit the Kashmir valley in 2005. In 1935, about 30,000 people were killed and Quetta was largely destroyed by a severe quake.