GARDEZ -- A powerful earthquake struck a remote border region of Afghanistan overnight, killing at least 1,000 people and injuring hundreds more, officials said Wednesday (June 22), with the toll expected to rise as desperate rescuers dig through collapsed dwellings.
The 5.9-magnitude quake struck hardest in the rugged east, where residents already lead hardscrabble lives in a country in the grip of a humanitarian disaster.
"People are digging grave after grave," said Mohammad Amin Huzaifa, director of the Information and Culture Department in hard-hit Paktika, adding that at least 1,000 residents had died in that province alone.
"It is raining also, and all houses are destroyed. People are still trapped under the rubble," he told journalists.
The death toll climbed steadily all day as news of casualties filtered in from hard-to-reach areas in the mountains, and officials warned it would likely rise further.
Earlier, a tribal leader from Paktika said survivors and rescuers were scrambling to help those affected.
Photographs and video clips posted on social media showed scores of badly damaged mud houses in remote rural areas.
Some footage showed local residents loading victims into a military helicopter.
Promises of help
Foreign countries and international organisations hours after the powerful earthquake vowed to help those affected.
The United Nations (UN) and European Union (EU) were quick to offer assistance.
Humanitarian partners are preparing to assist affected families in Paktika and Khost provinces in co-ordination with Afghan officials, the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) in Afghanistan said, according to AFP.
"Given the unseasonable, heavy rains and cold, emergency shelter is an immediate priority," UNOCHA added.
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."
"Afghan Red Crescent is on the ground responding," the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) also said in a tweet.
"Crucial relief items are on the way and mobile health teams have been mobilised," it said.
IFRC and other organisations "have deployed to support local branches in the immediate response and emergency assessments following the earthquake which has impacted Paktika and Khost", tweeted Necephor Mghendi, head of the IFRC delegation to Afghanistan.
The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) deployed at least 12 teams of health workers to Gayan district, Paktika province, and several mobile health and nutrition teams to Barmal district, Paktika province, and Spera district, Khost province, UNOCHA said, according to AFP.
"UNICEF is also distributing critical aid, including kitchen equipment, hygiene supplies including soap, detergent, towels, sanitary pads and water buckets, warm clothes, shoes and blankets, as well as tents and tarpaulins," UNICEF said in a separate statement.
From Vatican City, Pope Francis offered prayers for the victims of the latest quake.
"I express my closeness with the injured and those who were affected," the 85-year-old pontiff said at the end of his weekly audience.
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 Afghans were killed and injured in January when two quakes struck rural areas in Badghis province, damaging hundreds of buildings.
In 2015, more than 380 people were killed in Pakistan and Afghanistan when a 7.5-magnitude earthquake ripped across the two countries, with the bulk of the deaths in Pakistan.
The latest earthquake came at a time when Afghanistan is battling a severe humanitarian disaster.
Afghanistan needs billions of dollars this year to tackle the crisis, say aid agencies and the UN.
Aid agencies have particularly stressed the need for greater disaster preparedness in Afghanistan, which remains extremely susceptible to recurring earthquakes, floods and landslides.