Afghanistan's Taliban rulers plead for aid after the country's deadliest earthquake in two decades

Aid agencies have rushed assistance to eastern areas of Afghanistan after a powerful 6.1-magnitude earthquake struck the country early on Wednesday, killing more than 1,000 people.

The disaster posed a new test for Afghanistan's Taliban rulers and relief agencies already struggling with the country's multiple humanitarian crises.

Officials said the quake was Afghanistan's deadliest in two decades, and its death toll could rise.

An estimated 1,500 other people were reported injured, the state-run news agency said.

The disaster heaps more misery on a country where millions face increasing hunger and poverty and a health system that has been crumbling since the Taliban retook power nearly 10 months ago.

That takeover led to a cutting-off of vital international financing, and most of the world has since shunned the Taliban government.

The Taliban's supreme leader, Haibatullah Akhundzadah — who almost never appears in public — pleaded with the international community and humanitarian organisations "to help the Afghan people affected by this great tragedy and to spare no effort".

Residents in the remote area near the Pakistani border searched for victims, dead or alive, by digging with their bare hands through the rubble, according to footage shown by the Bakhtar news agency.

At least 2,000 homes were destroyed in the region where, on average, every household has seven or eight people living in it, said the UN's deputy special representative to Afghanistan, Ramiz Alakbarov.

The full extent of the destruction among the villages tucked in the mountains has been slow in coming to light.

Its roads — which are rutted and difficult to travel in the best of circumstances — may have been further damaged, and landslides from recent rains had already made access more difficult.

Rescuers rushed in by helicopter, but the relief effort may be hindered by the exodus of many international aid agencies from Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover last August.

Moreover, most governments are wary of dealing directly with the Taliban.

Mr Alakbarov said the Taliban had not formally requested that the UN mobilise international search-and-rescue teams nor asked to obtain equipment from neighbouring countries.

Still, officials from multiple UN agencies said the Taliban were giving them full access to the area.

The quake was centred in Paktika province, about 50 kilometres south-west of the city of Khost, according to neighbouring Pakistan's Meteorological Department.

Experts put its depth at just 10 kilometres. Shallow earthquakes tend to cause more damage.

The European seismological agency said the quake was felt more than 500km away by 119 million people across Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

Baktar news agency reports the death toll to date is equal to that of a quake in 2002 in northern Afghanistan.

Those have been the deadliest since 1998, when an earthquake that was also magnitude-6.1 and subsequent tremors in the remote north-east killed at least 4,500 people.

Wednesday's quake took place in a region prone to landslides, with many older, weaker buildings.

"The fear is that the victims will increase further, also because many people could be trapped under collapsed buildings," said Afghanistan country director for the Italian medical aid group Emergency, Stefano Sozza.

That aid group sent seven ambulances and staff to areas near the quake zone.