Thousands of people were killed when a massive earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale shook parts of Pakistan, India and Afghanistan, flattening houses and sweeping whole villages away.
Thousands more were believed injured as the quake, one of the strongest to rock the region in decades, triggered landslides and buried people in the rubble of ruined buildings.
View of the collapsed 10-story apartment building after a severe earthquake jolted Islamabad, Pakistan, Saturday, Oct 8, 2005. A magnitude 7.6 earthquake rocked parts of India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, injuring at least a dozen people and damaging dozens of homes and shops. Part of the 10-story apartment building collapsed in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, and dozens of people were feared trapped in the rubble. (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)
The epicentre struck close to the dividing line between Indian and Pakistani controlled zones of the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, but the quake was felt hundreds of kilometres (miles) away in Afghanistan's Kunduz mountains.
The Pakistani army said several thousand people were feared dead in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir alone, which appeared to bear the brunt of the quake's terrible power.
"This kind of devastation has never been seen in Pakistan's history before," said the chief military spokesman, Major General Shaukat Sultan.
"The death toll could be in several thousands in Kashmir alone," he told AFP. "The loss of life as well as property could be colossal and we need urgent help."
With rescue efforts ongoing, and electricity and communications cut off in much of Pakistani controlled Kashmir, it was too early to get a precise death toll.
But an army relief official said earlier that it was more than 1,000.
Elsewhere, police said more than 1,700 people were killed in Pakistan's North West Province while nearly 300 died in the Indian controlled sector of Kashmir, pushing the confirmed tally above 3,000.
"It is a test for all of us ... the entire nation," said Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.
Late at night, hours after the quake struck in mid-morning around 0350 GMT, rescue workers battled the darkness and raced against time to find survivors. Untold numbers were left homeless.
Many of those who lived were left crying and shouting in agony, knowing the worst had happened to their loved ones.
"I was working in the field close to a building when I felt the jolt and saw houses tumbling down to the ground," said Wali Rehman from the village of Ug in North West Frontier Province.
"I know my mother and my family have died," he said, weeping.
India and Pakistan, rivals that both have the atomic bomb, have fought two wars over Kashmir, where thousands of troops face off on each side of the Line of Control that divides the territory.
But in a message to Musharraf, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh offered help with rescue and relief operations.
"While parts of India have also suffered from this unexpected natural disaster, we are prepared to extend any assistance with rescue and relief which you may deem appropriate," Singh said.
A Pakistan army official said around 200 Pakistani soldiers were dead.
"Village after village has been wiped out," said another official in Muzaffarabad, the main town in Pakistani controlled Kashmir. "The Neelum River has been blocked because whole villages have fallen into the water."
A spokeswoman for the United Nations said a team of experts was en route to Islamabad to help coordinate relief efforts, while the European Commission said it could approve up to three million euros (3.6 million dollars) to help.
Many countries sent their condolences as did UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who said he was "deeply saddened by the loss of life and destruction."
The US Geological Survey and the Pakistan Meteorological Department said the quake measured 7.6 on the Richter scale while the Japanese Meteorological Agency put it at 7.8.
"This is the strongest quake in the last 100 years in this region," the chief of Pakistan's meteorological department, Qamar Uzzman, told AFP.
Witnesses said the temblor lasted for more than 30 seconds in Islamabad, where a 10-storey apartment blocked called the Margallah Towers collapsed, trapping bloodied residents under huge slabs of stone.
"We saw people rushing to a balcony on the other building but while it was still rocking, it crashed down and the occupants came down with the mass of the concrete," said local resident Sajida Burki.
"There were screams of women and children," Burki said.
At least 14 aftershocks, including one measuring more than 6.0 on the Richter scale, rattled Islamabad in the hours after the quake, according to the meteorological department.er rulemaking process.
© Copyright 2005 AFP