QUETTA - The death toll from Tuesday’s devastating earthquake has risen to 348 in Balochistan, according to official figures. However, independent sources claimed more than 400 people have died and the number could further increase as over 600 people are injured.

Balochistan Assembly Deputy Speaker Abdul Qadoos Bezinjo, who was elected from an Awaran constituency, claimed deaths in the district may surge to as many as 1,000 as over 40,000 houses had collapsed.

The 7.8-magnitude quake badly affected seven districts of Balochistan – Awaran and Kech being the worst-hit – and more than 300,000 people have been rendered homeless. Army and Frontier Corps personnel had started rescue and relief activities, but pace was slow due to poor or damaged infrastructure. Many areas remained inaccessible.

The Balochistan government has released Rs80 million on an emergent basis. Panjgur, Chaghi, Khuzdar and Gwadar districts too have been severely affected by the earthquake. However the provincial government has declared emergency in the worst-hit Awaran.

Rescue and relief activities had started late Tuesday but the pace of work is slow, largely because the population is sparsely spread over a large area in different small villages. The rescue and relief operation got a boost on Wednesday with the provision of helicopters by the Pak Army to airlift the injured and supply relief goods to far-flung areas.

Addressing a press conference, government spokesman Jan Muhammad Buledi said that 348 people, including women and children, have died. Rescue activities are underway but death toll may increase, he feared. He said 80 percent houses had been destroyed in the affected areas.

The spokesman said that WHO, UNICEF and other international organisations had offered to extend all kind of support to the affectees. The chief minister, who is on a foreign visit, would be back home today (Thursday), he added. 

Sources said many small villages still had not been accessed.

A local journalist told The Nation that the burial of bodies had been started but the survivors were desperately waiting for doctors and relief goods.

Army and FC personnel reached the affected areas from Karachi Tuesday night but assessing the scale of destruction, more troops are being sent to affected areas.

Agencies add: Jan Muhammad Buledi, spokesman for the Balochistan government, told AFP that more than 300,000 people had been affected by the quake across six districts - Awaran, Kech, Gwadar, Panjgur, Chaghi and Khuzdar.

"People are still trapped under the rubble but it is a huge disaster and it will take time to reach and rescue all the people," he said.

Mohammad Shabbir, a journalist, described scenes of grief and chaos in villages, saying survivors were digging rows of graves and picking through the debris.

"As far as the human eye can see, all the houses here have been flattened," he told Reuters from Awaran, adding that rescue teams were distributing supplies.

In the village of Dalbedi, the earthquake flattened some 250 houses, an AFP photographer said.

Bewildered villagers dug with their hands through the rubble of their mudhouses in Dalbedi to retrieve what was left of their meagre possessions.

Their simple houses destroyed, they used rags, old clothes, sheets and tree branches to shelter their families from the sun. Farmer Noor Ahmed, 45, said the tremors lasted for two minutes and turned buildings in the village into piles of mud.

"We have lost everything, even our food is now buried under mud and water from underground channels is now undrinkable because of excessive mud in it due to the earthquake," he told AFP.

Pakistan Navy has also dispatched a contingent along with relief goods.