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Rescuers are rushing to deliver relief aid to victims of a magnitude 7.5 earthquake that hit northern Afghanistan and Pakistan, killing more than 300 people over a wide swath of mostly mountainous terrain.

Thousands spent the night outdoors in near-freezing temperatures reluctant to go back inside for fear of aftershocks, Pakistani media reported on early on Tuesday.

"Rescue work is ongoing, and tents, blankets and sleeping mats are being provided," Latif ur Rehman, a Pakistani disaster management official, told Reuters from the northwestern city of Peshawar.

Pakistan's military and civilian authorities dispatched several helicopters to affected areas to assess damage and run rescue operations, the National Disaster Management Authority said.


In Pictures: Widespread destruction from South Asia quake 


The total death toll stood at 382 with at least 267 people killed in Pakistan and at least 115 more in Afghanistan, according to official reports from the two countries. More than 2,000 people have been injured.

Al Jazeera's Kamal Hyder, reporting from Kabal Swat in the Swat Valley area, said rescue teams have been fanning out in the area to try to assess the extent of the damage following the quake.

At least 130 people have been reported killed in the Swat Valley area, he said, adding that many of the schools in the area have been closed for fear that it could collapse in case of major aftershocks. At least 1,900 homes and other buildings have been damaged. 

"People are also trying to retrieve whatever they can from the rubble," he said. Over 2,000 tents have been distributed for the homeless. 

 

The death toll could climb in coming days because communications were down in much of the rugged Hindu Kush mountain range where the quake was centred.

Landslides in mountainous northern Pakistan over the weekend caused by heavy rain and snow had already left thousands of tourists stranded.

Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister of Pakistan, cut short his visit to the United Kingdom to fly home to deal with the emergency.

Afghanistan scrambles to reach quake zone

"We will try our best to deal with this disaster using our own resources," he said.

Meanwhile, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani urged his countrymen to help those in need.

"I demand all Afghans, my fellow countrymen, to help each other if they are in the affected areas," he said. 

Al Jazeera's Jennifer Glasse, reporting from Kabul, said rescuers are facing challenges in getting to the mountainous areas of Afghanistan.

"It's further complicated by the fact that some of the areas are controlled by the Taliban," she said while adding that the armed group has also called on Afghans and aid organisations to extend help to victims. 

In an audio message on Tuesday, Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor urged his fighters to avoid harming public facilities, and to "treat people right", while reassuring unity among the ranks of fighters. 

Hundreds of houses destroyed

The earthquake struck almost exactly six months after Nepal suffered its worst quake on record on April 25.

The quake was 213km deep and centred 254km northeast of Kabul.

In Afghanistan, where rescue and relief work is likely to be complicated by security threats created by an escalating Taliban insurgency, more than 100 people were reported dead in several provinces including Badakhshan, where hundreds were killed in mudslides last year.

Hundreds of houses were destroyed, creating additional hardship with winter temperatures setting in.

Hikmat Fasi, a resident of Parwan Province in northern Afghanistan, said the quake caused a lot of damage in the area.

"We are safe, but I saw a lot of buildings collapse," Fasi said. "It [earthquake] caused severe damage to our area. We are just praying."

Strong tremors were also felt in the Indian and Pakistani capitals, New Delhi and Islamabad, residents said, as authorities in the two neighbouring countries issued warnings for strong aftershocks.

The United States offers help

The initial magnitude 7.5 quake on Monday afternoon was followed by several aftershocks, according to the US Geological Survey.

The US and Iran were among countries that offered to provide humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan.

John Ebel, chairman of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Boston College in the US, said the depth of the earthquake had limited its severity and meant damage was likely to be spread broadly rather than focused in one disaster zone.

But he said landslides on the unstable slopes of the mountainous region could pose a major problem.

At least 253 people were reported killed in Pakistan following the quake [The Associated Press]

- Additional reporting by Shereena Qazi. Follow her on Twitter @shereenaQazi

Source: Al Jazeera And Reuters