Pakistani officials say a magnitude 6.4 earthquake has killed at least 170 people in an impoverished area of southwest Pakistan and left thousands of others homeless. International aid groups in the region estimated at least 500 people have been killed. VOA's Barry Newhouse reports from Islamabad that witnesses say the tremor flattened entire villages.
The earthquake struck before dawn, as residents were preparing to offer the first prayers of the day.
Munir Ahmed told a VOA reporter who visited his devastated village in Ziarat district that his family evacuated their home when the first, smaller tremor shook the building.
He says we went outside and waited, but because it was cold we went back inside. He says 20 minutes later the large earthquake hit, flattening his extended family's compound and killing 20 of his relatives.
Seismologists said the earthquake was located about 60 kilometers northeast of the provincial capital Quetta, near the scenic Ziarat district where Ahmed's village and several others are home to about 50,000 people.
Locals build their homes out of timber and mud that have heavy walls and roofs to support the weight of winter snows. Rescue workers are now struggling to dig through the collapsed homes to find survivors.
Maulana Abdul Wasey, a provincial minister representing the region, spoke to VOA standing before the rubble of dozens of flattened homes. He says people cannot imagine that this place was a village filled with houses. He asked the government to ensure that those left homeless are given food and shelter to survive the cold weather.
The minister says many families have already begun burying their dead, making it difficult to determine how many people have died.
Pakistan's central government has pledged thousands of dollars to the families of those killed in the quake and hundreds of dollars to those who are seriously injured. The military has flown in tents, food, supplies and doctors to the affected region.
But the head of the country's national disaster response, retired Lieutenant General Farooq Khan expressed concern about the regional government's ability to respond to the situation.
"As far as Baluchistan is concerned - unless the Baluch disaster management authorities really become effective, a simple problem becomes a more serious one," Farooq said.
By evening, locals in the quake affected areas reported shortages of food and water in some places. They appealed for the government to provide heavy digging equipment to help them bury their dead, as well as shelter and blankets to endure the night-time temperatures that fall below freezing.