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Worst Natural Disaster in Years Kills 1,000 in Afghanistan

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(Bloomberg) -- At least 1,000 people have been killed and hundreds more injured after a powerful earthquake hit southeastern Afghanistan overnight, setting off a new humanitarian crisis in a country already facing a crumbling economy and hunger.

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Afghanistan’s eastern Paktika province was the worst-hit, according to Sharafuddin Muslim, the deputy state minister for disaster management. The state-run Bakhtar News agency said at least 1,000 people died and an additional 1,500 were injured and that the death toll could rise. Helicopters and rescue teams have been sent to the affected areas, Muslim added.

Casualties and damage were also reported in nearby Khost and Nangahar provinces, which border Pakistan, Taliban spokesman Bilal Karimi said. The quake was the worst natural disaster to hit the nation since a landslide in 2014 killed 2,000 people in the northeastern Badakhshan province.

Karimi urged international aid agencies to help rescue those still trapped in the rubble of ruined homes after the 5.9 magnitude temblor hit at about 2:30 a.m. Wednesday.

Unicef’s representative to Afghanistan said the organization has deployed at least 12 teams of health workers to one of the affected districts. The teams are distributing critical aid as well as basic supplies including tents, soap and warm clothing, he said.

“We don’t yet know the full extent of the devastation, but we believe hundreds of people have been killed, including many women and children,” according to the statement from Mohamed Ayoya. “Many more have been injured and many homes damaged or destroyed. These numbers are expected to grow as reports continue to come in.”

Afghanistan’s economy was already in crisis after international aid, which made up some 40% of its gross domestic product, was lost following the Taliban’s take over of the country after the withdrawal of US troops last August. The US also blocked the central bank’s access to some $9 billion in overseas reserves.

More than 24 million people are now in need of humanitarian assistance in the nation, up from about 18.4 million last year, the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction said in a report last month. More than 70% of Afghan families don’t have enough money to buy food and other essentials, the study added.

The country, already in its worst drought in three decades, has also been hit hard by the recent surge in food prices, fueled by the war in Ukraine. The United Nations has warned that more than half of the country’s 40 million people are facing acute hunger, and a million children could die of starvation.

Acting Prime Minister Mullah Mohammad Hassan held an emergency cabinet meeting Wednesday and set aside 100 million afghanis ($1.1 million) to help the victims, Muslim said, adding that the families of those killed would receive 100,000 afghanis ($1,116) each and the injured would get 50,000 afghanis each.

Haibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban’s spiritual leader, has asked all concerned government officials and ordinary citizens to rush to the earthquake-hit areas to help with rescue and relief efforts, Taliban spokesman Karimi said in a statement sent via WhatsApp.

The affected areas are some of the poorest in the country with simple mud and brick homes, with most people earning a living from small farms or rearing cattle.

The epicenter of the earthquake was about 46 kilometers (27 miles) from the city of Khost, near the Pakistani border, at a depth of 10 kilometers (6.2137 miles), the U.S. Geological Survey said.

(Updates with Unicef statement starting in fifth paragraph.)

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