The Taliban urged aid agencies on Tuesday to push ahead in delivering emergency relief supplies after a major earthquake hit remote mountainous regions of northern Afghanistan and Pakistan, killing at least 300 people.

Relief groups’ efforts to assess the damage were hindered by an unstable security situation that has left much of the affected areas unsafe for international aid workers and government troops.

But the Taliban, which have stepped up their Islamist insurgency against the Western-backed government in Kabul this year, indicated they would not stand in the way of aid efforts.

“The Islamic Emirate calls on our good-willed countrymen and charitable organizations to not hold back in providing shelter, food and medical supplies to the victims,” the group said in a condolence message to quake victims, using its formal name.

“And it similarly orders its mujahideen in the affected areas to lend their complete help.”

Authorities confirmed 228 deaths in Pakistan while in Afghanistan, the death toll had climbed to more than 80. At least 4,000 houses and compounds had been destroyed or damaged, Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah said.

The toll could climb as road and communications links are restored to isolated villages. As a harsh winter sets in across the rugged Hindu Kush mountains where the earthquake struck, the plight of thousands left homeless is becoming more serious.

“We have insufficient food and other aid,” said Abdul Habib Sayed Khil, chief of police in Kunar, one of the worst-hit provinces, where 42 people were confirmed dead. “It has been raining for four days and the weather is very cold.”

In Kabul, the capital, NATO officials said they were helping Afghan security forces plan relief operations.

In Pakistan, where landslides and heavy rain and snow over the weekend had already left thousands of tourists stranded in mountainous areas of the north, the country’s well-equipped military was heavily involved in relief efforts.

Military spokesman General Asim Bajwa said assessment teams were still surveying damage and troops were working to help reopen the Karakoram highway linking Pakistan to China, after it was blocked by landslides.

Two army helicopters joined the relief mission and a special air force plane flew to the Chitral region, where 29 people were killed and more than 200 injured.

The earthquake struck almost exactly six months after Nepal suffered its worst quake on record, on April 25. Including the toll from a major aftershock in May, 9,000 people lost their lives there and 900,000 homes were damaged or destroyed.

Monday’s initial quake of magnitude 7.5 was followed by seven aftershocks, of intensity ranging as high as 4.8, the U.S. Geological Survey said. The latest aftershock came just before dawn on Tuesday.

The quake was 213 km (132 miles) deep and centred 254 km (158 miles) northeast of Kabul.

The United States and Iran were among countries that offered humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan, which already depends heavily on foreign aid after decades of war wrecked its economy and infrastructure.

In Washington, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the U.S. Agency for International Development was ready to provide emergency shelter and relief supply kits.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said a relief package would be announced after the damage had been assessed.

“The government is capable enough to rescue and rehabilitate those affected by the earthquake and every effort will be made to help fellow citizens in distress,” Sharif said during a visit to the district of Shangla, where at least 38 people perished.

(Additional reporting by Mehreen Zahra-Malik in Islamabad and Krista Mahr in Kabul; Writing by Kay Johnson and James Mackenzie; Editing by Nick Macfie and Clarence Fernandez)

From Reuters

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