KABUL, Afghanistan -
Rescue teams and family members searched frantically for survivors late yesterday in a string of villages in southwestern Pakistan where at least 170 people were killed by a powerful earthquake.
Thousands of people were left homeless by the predawn temblor in the rural area, where many residents live in mud-brick homes that collapsed with the force of the magnitude 6.4 quake. Authorities said the death toll could rise as rescuers enter remote villages that had been cut off by landslides.
Even in good conditions, roads in the area are primitive. Pakistani army helicopters and cargo planes were ferrying in emergency aid, including food, tents and blankets. Medical teams were converging on the scene near the border with Afghanistan, but help arrived too late for some.
President Asif Ali Zardari ordered the national and provincial governments as well as the army to swiftly provide all necessary aid. The tremor was yet another challenge for his young government, which is struggling with a flagging economy, repeated clashes with insurgents in the border region, and conflicts with its American allies over U.S. military strikes into Pakistani territory.
The quake, which struck as most families were asleep in their homes, was centered about 50 miles northeast of the city of Quetta, the capital of Pakistan's impoverished Baluchistan province. With the chill of winter setting in, many of the survivors lost everything, including warm clothing, in the rubble of their homes.
The area was rocked by a magnitude 6.2 aftershock yesterday evening, terrifying thousands of people who were preparing to spend a freezing night in the open.
"I have lost everything," said Haji Shahbaz, mourning the deaths of 17 relatives in Wam, a hard-hit village. "Nothing is left here, and now life is worthless for me," he added, then wailed in despair, tears streaking his dust-caked face.
As the army and other government agencies rushed to provide help, at least three hard-line Islamic organizations also were quick to aid quake survivors, according to an Associated Press reporter who toured the area.
Among them was Jamaat-ud-Dawa, designated a terrorist group by the U.S. government for its links to Muslim separatists fighting in India's portion of the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir.
The group set up relief camps and won friends among survivors of a 7.6-magnitude quake that devastated Kashmir and northern Pakistan in October 2005, killing about 80,000 people and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless.
Baluchistan is home to a long-running separatist movement, but has so far been spared the level of militant violence seen in the northwestern tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan, where Muslim extremists are strong.
The worst-hit area was the Ziarat valley, where hundreds of houses were destroyed in at least eight villages, including some buried in landslides triggered by the quake.
In some of the hardest-hit villages in Zirat and Pishin districts, entire families were buried in the ruins of mud-brick compounds, and survivors were digging mass graves, using whatever implements they could find. Small area hospitals and clinics were inundated with injured people, some of whom had to endure a bumpy road trip to Quetta for treatment.
Dilawar Kakar, mayor of the hilltop town of Ziarat, said 170 people in the area had been killed, with 375 injured and about 15,000 left homeless. Ziarat itself, a popular summer resort since the days of the British empire, was spared major damage.
Earthquakes are fairly common in Pakistan, some of them devastating. Nearly 75,000 people were killed in a quake three years ago in the country's north. Quetta was nearly leveled by an earthquake in 1935.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.