KABUL — A massive earthquake hit northern Afghanistan and Pakistan on Monday afternoon, killing at least 263 people, causing heavy damage, and sowing panic across one of the world’s most impoverished and war-torn regions.
At least 228 people were killed in Pakistan, with more than 1,000 injured, while Afghan officials reported 33 dead and more than 200 injured, and authorities in the Indian-controlled Kashmir region reported two deaths. the Associated Press said.
Buildings were jolted and broke down in the shaking, sending people pouring into city streets in Peshawar and Islamabad in Pakistan, and in Kabul, the Afghan capital.
“All the while, I was looking at the towering building, fearing it would come crashing on me anytime,” said Muhammad Ali, a vendor in a busy shopping area of Peshawar. “The whole building was swinging from one side to the other.”
The quake, which struck at 1:39 p.m. and registered a preliminary magnitude of 7.5, was centered in the Hindu Kush mountain range, about 160 miles northeast of Kabul. The quake’s depth was reported at 132 miles, the US Geological Survey said, and its effects were felt as far away as New Delhi.
The Afghan minister for disaster management, Wais Ahmad Barmak, said that at least 103 districts had been hit in 14 provinces, with at least 4,000 homes destroyed or damaged.
In one of the worst scenes in Afghanistan, at least 12 young students were killed at a girls’ school packed with as many as 900 people in the northern province of Takhar, said Sunatullah Taimoor, a spokesman for the provincial governor. Most of the victims were crushed to death in a panicked stampede to leave the building, a rented four-story house in the city of Taliqan.
“The neighbors had to bring wooden ladders, remove the windows and help the students out,” said the school’s principal, Abdul Hai.
And in remote Kunar province, the police chief said at least 30 people were killed, and at least 1,100 homes destroyed, when the earthquake mixed with heavy rain to create massive landslides in several areas.
Officials in both countries declared emergencies, and military units were ordered to join the response. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was said to be rushing back to Pakistan, abruptly ending a trip abroad.
Attempts to gauge the damage and death toll in both countries were hampered by power failures and widespread damage to telephone systems. Poor security played a role as well: In Afghanistan in particular, the hardest-hit areas were those also most affected by militant violence, including an intense Taliban offensive that has stretched for weeks in remote parts of the north.
In Pakistan, provincial authorities in Peshawar said at least 63 people had been killed in surrounding Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. Severe tolls were also expected in other remote regions of the north, including in the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas.
That number was almost surely low, officials said. And reports were still awaited from some of the hardest hit areas of Pakistan, including parts of Chitral, Shangla, and Lower Dir.
In Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, people ran out into the open as the earthquake rattled the city. Panic was widespread in neighborhoods with high-rises and multistory apartment blocks, and hundreds of shopkeepers and customers swarmed the main avenue in Blue Area, a commercial neighborhood. Aftershocks continued for some time, keeping many from returning to their offices and homes.
In the northern city of Peshawar, Mehreen Ali, 30, a dentist, said she was sitting in a car outside a shopping plaza when the vehicle started shaking.
“I thought the car was shaking as the driver was leaning against it,” Ali said. “Then suddenly, people started coming out of the building in front. People were staring at the building as if it was about to fall as it shook.”
In the northern valley of Swat, at least 35 people were killed, local officials said. At least 100 houses were damaged, and hospital officials said that more than 250 people had been brought in for treatment.
Landslides were reported in the mountainous Pakistani regions of Gilgit and Chitral, as boulders fell on to the roads, cutting off many areas. Damage was reported in more central parts of the country as well: In Punjab province, at least five people were reported dead.
In Afghanistan, the country’s chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, called an emergency meeting of senior officials to respond to the disaster. “This is the strongest earthquake that has happened in our country in recent years,” Abdullah said, warning of the possibility of aftershocks.
In Badakhshan province, the center of the earthquake and long vulnerable to natural disasters, at least 10 people were killed and 24 wounded, according to Shah Waliullah Adib, the province’s governor. More than 1,400 homes were destroyed across 27 districts, Adib said.
Habiba, a researcher based in Eshkashim district who uses one name, said many houses had been destroyed there, but casualties were avoided as people had time to move out.
“We ran outside to the road and saw the dust rising up from the mountain surface and sand sliding down,” she said.
South Asia has a history of devastating earthquakes. In April, more than 8,700 people were killed in Nepal’s worst earthquake in 80 years.