By CHRISTOPHER TORCHIA, Associated Press Writer
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - A huge earthquake triggered landslides, toppled an apartment building and flattened villages of mud-brick homes Saturday, killing more than 3,000 people across a mountainous swath touching Pakistan, India and Afghanistan.
The casualty toll from the 7.6-magnitude tremor was rising early Sunday as rescuers struggled to dig people from the wreckage, their work made more difficult as rain and hail turned dirt and debris into sticky muck. The worst damage was in Pakistan, where the dead included 250 girls crushed at a school and 200 soldiers on duty in the Himalayas.
For hours, aftershocks rattled an area stretching from Afghanistan across northern Pakistan into India's portion of the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir. Hospitals moved quake victims onto lawns, fearing tremors could cause more damage.
The earthquake, which struck just before 9 a.m., caused buildings to sway for about a minute in the capitals of Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, an area some 625 miles across. Panicked people ran from homes and offices, and communications were cut to many areas.
Most of the devastation occurred in the mountains of northern Pakistan. The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake was centered about 60 miles northeast of the capital, Islamabad, in the forested mountains of Pakistani Kashmir.
"It is a national tragedy," said Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan, Pakistan's chief army spokesman. "This is the worst earthquake in recent times."
In Mansehra, a shopowner named Haji Fazal Ilahi stood vigil over the body of his 14-year-old daughter, which lay under a sheet on a hospital mattress. He said his wife, another daughter and a brother also died when the family's house fell.
"I could see rocks and homes tumbling down the mountains," said Ilahi, who was driving to his village of Garlat when the quake struck. "When I reached my village, there was nothing left of my home."
India's government offered condolences and assistance to Pakistan, a longtime rival with which it has been pursuing peace efforts after fighting three wars since independence from British rule in 1947, two of them over Kashmir.
"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," Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in a message to Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
India reported at least 250 people killed and 800 injured when the quake collapsed 2,700 houses and other buildings in Jammu-Kashmir state. Most of the deaths occurred in the border towns of Uri, Tangdar and Punch and in the city of Srinagar, said B.B. Vyas, the state's divisional commissioner.
Telephone lines were down. Some bridges developed cracks, but traffic was reported to be passing over them.
A senior Pakistani army officer said 200 soldiers were killed by debris and landslides in Pakistan's portion of Kashmir. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists.
About 1,000 civilians died in that region, said Sardar Mohammed Anwar, the top government official in the area.
"This is my conservative guess, and the death toll could be much higher," Anwar told Pakistan's Aaj television station, adding that most homes in Muzaffarabad, the area's capital, were damaged, and schools and hospitals collapsed.
The death toll was at least 1,600 in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, said Akram Durani, the province's top elected official.
Ataullah Khan Wazir, police chief in the northwestern district of Mansehra, said authorities there pulled the bodies of 250 students from the wreckage of one girls' school in the village of Ghari Habibibullah. About 500 students were injured, he said.
Dozens of children were feared killed in other schools.
Mansehra, about 90 miles northwest of the capital, was believed to be a hotbed of Islamic militant activity during the time the Taliban religious militia ruled neighboring Afghanistan. Al-Qaida operatives trained suicide squads at a camp there, Afghan and Pakistani sources told The Associated Press in 2002.
Afghanistan appeared to suffer the least damage. In its east, an 11-year-old girl was crushed to death when a wall in her home collapsed, police official Gafar Khan said.
A U.S. military spokesman, Lt. Col. Jerry O'Hara, said the quake was felt at Bagram, the main American base in Afghanistan, but he had no reports of damage at bases around the country.
The United Nations said it was working with Pakistan, Afghanistan and India on an emergency response to the quake.
President Bush offered condolences, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States was ready to help.
"At this difficult time, the United States stands with its friends in Pakistan and India, just as they stood with us and offered assistance after Hurricane Katrina," Rice said in a statement.
In Pakistan, Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz ordered the military to extend "all-out help" to quake-hit areas and appealed to the nation to stay calm.
Helicopters and C-130 transport planes took troops and supplies to damaged areas, but landslides and rain hindered rescue efforts.
The only serious damage reported in Pakistan's capital was the collapse of a 10-story apartment building, where at least 10 people were killed and 126 were injured. Hospital doctors said the dead included an Egyptian diplomat, and the Japanese Foreign Ministry in Tokyo said two Japanese were killed.
A man named Rehmatullah who lived near the apartment building said dust enveloped the wreckage.
"I rushed down, and for some time you could not see anything because of the dust. Then we began to look for people in the rubble," he said. "We pulled out one man by cutting off his legs."
"It was like hell," added Nauman Ali, who lives in a nearby building. "I was tossed up in my bed and the ceiling fan struck against the roof."
Aided by two large cranes, hundreds of police and soldiers helped remove chunks of concrete, one of which was splattered with blood. One rescue worker said he heard faint cries from people trapped in the rubble.
In Abbotabad, north of Islamabad, dozens of injured quake victims and other patients lay on the lawn of the city hospital as staff with loudspeakers appealed to the public for food and other relief supplies.
One of the injured was an 8-year-old boy, Qadeer, whose father, a farmer named Jehangir, said the only buildings left standing in their village were a mosque and a school. Qadeer lay unconscious, his right leg heavily bandaged.
Authorities laid out dozens of bodies under sheets in a damaged sports stadium in Muzaffarabad.