ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – A powerful 7.6-magnitude earthquake near the Pakistan-India border Saturday reduced villages to rubble, triggered landslides and flattened an apartment building, killing hundreds of people in both nations. Pakistan’s army called the devastation “a national tragedy.”
In the capitals of Pakistan, India and Afghanistan, buildings shook and walls swayed for about a minute, and panicked people ran from their homes and offices. Tremors continued for hours afterward. Communications throughout the region were cut.
Pakistan’s Geo television quoted chief army spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan as saying 1,000 people were feared dead. Army officials who flew over quake-hit areas reported seeing hundreds of flattened homes in villages north of the capital, Islamabad.
“The damage and casualties could be massive and it is a national tragedy,” Sultan told The Associated Press. “This is the worst earthquake in recent times.”
U.S. Geological Survey said on its Web site the quake hit at 8:50 a.m. local time and had a magnitude of 7.6. It was centered about 60 miles northeast of Islamabad in the forested mountains of Pakistani
Damage was extensive in Kashmir, the disputed Himalayan territory divided between India and Pakistan. Officials in the Indian-controlled portion reported at least 190 people killed, including 20 soldiers who perished in a landslide. At least 800 people were injured and about 2,700 homes were destroyed or damaged across Jammu-Kashmir, said senior state official B.B. Vyas.
Army soldiers and local volunteers were rescuing people from under the debris of collapsed houses. Telephone lines were down. Bridges had developed cracks, but traffic was passing over them.
The USGS reported at least five aftershocks in Pakistan, with the strongest measuring magnitude 6.3 and located about 70 miles north of Islamabad.
Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz ordered the military to extend “all-out help” to quake-hit areas and appealed to the nation to stay calm. Helicopters took troops to damaged areas, but landslides were hindering rescue efforts.
At least 500 people died and 1,700 were injured in four quake-hit districts in northwestern Pakistan, said provincial police chief Rifat Pasha. He said the toll could rise because rescue teams were still working in areas that were hit hard by the temblor.
In eastern Afghanistan, an 11-year-old girl was crushed to death when a wall in her home collapsed, said police official Gafar Khan.
The quake brought down a 10-story apartment building in Islamabad and dozens of people were feared trapped in the rubble. Rescuers pulled out at least 20 injured people. Some residents were Westerners, a building employee said.
A man named Rehmatullah who lived nearby said he saw dust from the buckled building from his bathroom window.
“I rushed down, and for some time you could not see anything because of the dust. Then we began to look for people in the rubble,” he said. “We pulled out one man by cutting off his legs.”
“It was like hell,” said Nauman Ali, who lived in a nearby top-floor apartment. “It was terrible. I was tossed up in my bed and the ceiling fan struck against the roof.”
Aided by two large cranes, hundreds of police and soldiers helped remove chunks of concrete, one of which was splattered with blood. One rescue worker said he initially heard faint cries from people trapped in the rubble.
Sultan said the worst-hit areas were in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, including Muzaffarabad, the regional capital, and the towns of Bagh and Rawalakot. The districts of Batagram, Balakot, Mansehra, Abbottabad and Patan in northwestern Pakistan also suffered serious damage, he said.
Dozens of homes, schools, mosques and government offices were damaged, and hundreds of injured people were taken to hospitals.
U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Jerry O’Hara said the quake was felt at Bagram, the main American base in Afghanistan, but he had no reports of damage at bases around the country.
“It was so strong that I saw buildings swaying. It was terrifying,” said Hari Singh, a guard in an apartment complex in a suburb of India’s capital, New Delhi. Hundreds of residents raced down from their apartments after their furniture started shaking.
The quake also jolted parts of Bangladesh, but no casualties or damage were reported there.