The quake sent people in Lahore and Islamabad running into the streets. With rescue operations expected to continue overnight, residents in the worst-hit areas described their horror as walls collapsed and houses fell.
The epicentre of the 5.2-magnitude quake was near the city of Mirpur, 22 kilometers (14 miles) north of the city of Jhelum along the boundary separating the agricultural heartland of Punjab province and Pakistan-administered Kashmir, the US geological agency, USGS, said.
The larger Kashmir region is a disputed and troubled territory with separate Indian and Pakistani regions. Mirpur is in the Pakistani-administered region, which is nominally self-governing.
On one of the district’s two main roads, AFP reporters could see cracks at least four feet (1.2 meters) deep, some filling with water from a nearby canal. Television images showed cars wedged in to some cracks, while a bus and a truck lay by the side of the road.
In the village of Sahankikri, on the outskirts of Mirpur, residents said almost all the 400 houses were damaged.
“We are shelterless now,” said resident Shamraiz Akhtar.
“I will never forget the horrible sound,” another resident, Muhammad Ramzan, told AFP. “It looked like the entire village tossed and turned and spun around.”
“We… We’re sitting having a gossip when suddenly the earthquake shook us all. Fortunately the wall collapsed the other way, burying one of our buffalo,” 23-year-old student Nabeel Hussain said.
Piles of rubble could be seen as darkness fell on the village, with the sound of women wailing in mourning. Others spoke only in whispers, fearful of aftershocks.
“At least 19 people have been killed and more than 300 wounded,” said Sardar Gulfaraz, deputy inspector general of police in Mirpur, in a televised address.
A second Kashmiri official, minister for rehabilitation Ahmed Raza Qadri, put the death toll at 20.
However, the chairman of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) gave a lower toll at a press conference in Islamabad.
“I can confirm 10 deaths and the number of wounded is 100,” said Lieutenant General Mohammad Afzal, chairman of the NDMA, adding that he had received reports of a higher toll.
“Things are under control,” he said, adding that the nearby Mangla Dam, one of Pakistan’s two main water reservoirs, was unaffected by the quake.
The prime minister of Pakistani Kashmir, Raja Farooq Haider Khan, told reporters that infrastructure had been destroyed.
Roads, mobile phone towers, and electricity poles in the area were badly damaged, Naeem Chughtai, a Mirpur resident living near the city’s main hospital, told AFP.
The military deployed “aviation and medical support” teams along with troops to affected areas in Kashmir, according to its spokesman.
Mirpur, a city known for its palatial houses, has strong ties to Britain with the majority of its 450,000 residents carrying both British and Pakistani passports.
Tremors were felt as far as New Delhi. The Press Trust of India reported that panicked people rushed out of their homes and offices in several places, including in Rajasthan, Punjab, and Haryana.
“The earthquake was felt but there are no reports of any damage,” Amir Ali, from the disaster management department in Indian-administered Kashmir, told AFP.
With Indian-held Kashmir’s mobile and internet services mostly cut off after New Delhi stripped the region’s autonomy in early August, people used social media to express fears about not being able to get in touch with their families in the valley.
“Dear @AmitShah (Home Affairs Minister) please restore mobile services in Kashmir I do not know any update since Aug 5 about my family. We are now feeling so anxious about our family in aftermath of Earthquake,” Faizan Peer tweeted.
Pakistan straddles part of the boundary where the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates meet, making the country susceptible to earthquakes.
In October 2015, a 7.5-magnitude quake in Pakistan and Afghanistan killed almost 400 people in rugged terrain that impeded relief efforts.
The country was also hit by a 7.6-magnitude quake on October 8, 2005, that killed more than 73,000 people and left about 3.5 million homeless, mainly in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir.