At least 1,000 people were killed and just as many injured after one of the deadliest earthquakes in decades struck eastern Afghanistan early Wednesday, a government spokesman said.
The United States Geological Survey said the magnitude of the earthquake was 5.9, down from an initial estimate of 6.1. The temblor struck a remote and mountainous area near the border with Pakistan, flattening homes and leaving people trapped beneath the rubble.
Taliban spokesman Bilal Karimi said the death toll had risen to 1,000 from its earlier count of around 300 as more information trickled in from rural parts of the Paktika and Khost provinces hit by the temblor. He said more than 1,000 people were also injured, with the toll expected to rise.
NBC News has not independently verified the number of people killed.
“The situation is quite critical," Karimi told NBC News earlier Wednesday. "Hundreds of houses are collapsed and we expect heavy human losses and serious damage to the infrastructure."
Karimi said hundreds of people were to be trapped under the rubble of buildings that collapsed in the earthquake. He said rescue efforts had been launched, but noted that some of the areas affected were in remote locations.
“In this critical situation, we appeal to the international community and philanthropist organizations to come forward and help the Afghan people,” he said.
His plea comes at a time when much of the international community has left Afghanistan following the Taliban's takeover last year, however, which is likely to complicate relief efforts.
Ramiz Alakbarov, the United Nations secretary general’s deputy special representative for Afghanistan, said in a tweet that U.N. officials were "assessing the needs and responding in the aftermath of the earthquake."
Offering condolences to the families of those killed, Alakbarov said "response is on its way."
Salahuddin Ayubi, an official of Afghanistan’s interior ministry, said Paktika had "badly suffered" in the temblor, while in Khost, more than two dozen people had died, with around 90 injured.
He said rescue efforts were underway and the injured were being taken to hospitals. Mountainous Afghanistan is known to be vulnerable to earthquakes and has suffered several major temblors in recent years.
In 2015, at least 385 people were killed after an earthquake struck the country's northeast and neighboring northern Pakistan.
A magnitude-6.1 earthquake in 2002 killed around 1,000 people in northern Afghanistan, while in 1998, a magnitude-6.1 temblor and subsequent tremors in northeast Afghanistan left at least 4,500 people dead, according to The Associated Press.