PESHAWAR/Lahore - The biggest-ever earthquake in Pakistan rocked the country and neighbouring Afghanistan yesterday, killing around 350 people.

Hundreds of homes were destroyed as the quake shook a swathe of the subcontinent, sending thousands of frightened people rushing into the streets and open spaces.

At least 275 people lost their lives in Pakistan while more than 2,000 were injured. As many as 70 people died in Afghanistan where the quake originated.

The deadly earthquake came at 2:09pm and measured 8.1 according to country’s geological department. But, the US Geological Survey (USGS) initially measured the magnitude at 7.7, and then revised it down to 7.5.

The powerful jolts forced people out of their homes and offices. The telecommunication structure suffered damage, rendering many of utterly scared people unable to connect their loved ones.

Troops had been mobilised and all military hospitals put on high alert, army spokesman Lt-Gen Asim Bajwa said, with the air force also offering support.

Army Chief General Raheel Sharif, who ordered troops to immediately start rescue operations without waiting for formal orders, himself flew to some areas of most-affected Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province.

Huge losses were reported from Malakand, Swat, Chitral, Dir Upper, Dir Lower, Buner and Shangla districts of KP where Chief Minister Pervez Khattak declared emergency.

The human and material loss was also severe in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), which lies along Afghan border. The earthquake was heavily felt in Punjab and Azad Kashmir too.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was in UK, has shortened his visit and he would rush to country to personally supervise the rescue and relief work, his office said in a statement. The PM had already directed all the agencies to mobilise all resources to help the affected, it said.

The quake, according to USGS, was 213 km deep and centred near Jurm, 250 km from the capital Kabul, in northeastern Badakhshan province of Afghanistan, where 63 deaths had been counted by the night.

But MET Office Lahore Director Sahibdad Khan told The Nation, “The quake was 8.1 in magnitude and 193km underground (in Hindukush mountain range).”

It was one of the most severe earthquakes in country’s history, Khan said, warning that there may be major aftershocks considering the high magnitude of this earthquake. One aftershock hit shortly afterwards, with the USGS putting its magnitude at 4.8.

The greater depth and distance from highly populated areas however made Monday’s quake less damaging than that of Kashmir quake of 2005, which had killed more than 100,000 people – most of them in Azad Jammu and Kashmir – and displaced some 3.5 million.

But extensiveness of the earthquake, which was felt as far as New Delhi, and high number of the injured meant the death toll could climb in coming days.

Around 70 people were confirmed dead in Afghanistan. "Initial reports show a big loss of life, huge financial losses in Badakhshan, Takhar, Nangarhar, Kunar and other regions, including the capital Kabul," said country’s chief executive Abdullah Abdullah.

In a horrific incident, 12 Afghan girls crushed in a stampede as they fled their collapsing school in Taluqan city. "The students rushed to escape the school building, triggering a stampede," education department chief Enayat Naweed told AFP. "Twelve students, all minors, were killed and 35 others were injured."

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took to Twitter immediately after the quake, saying that India stood ready to assist, including in Afghanistan and Pakistan if required.

KP CM Parvez Khattak visited Leady Reading Hospital in Peshawar where he met with the injured, besides directing the hospital administration to ensure best treatment to the victims.

According to reports, the quake killed at least 23 people and injured 102 in Chitral district of the province. More than 34 died and 54 others were wounded in Shangla. The human toll in other districts of KP was: Upper Dir, 23 deaths, 250 injured; Swat, 23, 100; Torghar, 13, 28; Buner, 10, 80; Lower Dir, 7, 24; Malakand, 7, 160; Peshawar 6, 123; Swabi, 5, 16; Charsadda, 4, 34; Mardan 4, 24, while one death was reported in Mansehra.

As for Fata, 17 people were killed and 27 wounded in Bajaur Agency, four people died in Mohmand Agency while one person died in Jamrud town of Khyber Agency.

Officials feared surge in casualties as reports from some far flung localities were yet to arrive where communication system had been disrupted.

Most of the deaths came as a result of house collapse and felling of boundary walls of buildings. The quake also caused landslides in many areas, causing roadblocks.