Aid, rescue efforts mounted after deadly landslide in northern Afghanistan

May 3

Aid groups rushed assistance to Afghanistan’s northern province of Badakhshan on Saturday, a day after a landslide buried scores of homes under more than 30 feet of mud.

The landslide struck midday Friday about 50 miles from Afghanistan’s northeastern border with Tajikistan, and officials said at least 350 people were killed instantly. But more than 24 hours later, there were conflicting reports about how many other people might still be buried under debris.

A spokesman for the provincial governor told several media outlets Saturday that 2,100 people were missing and presumed dead. Other provincial leaders stressed the likelihood that the figure was too high but said precise tallies of dead and missing may not be known for weeks, if ever.

With officials worried about new landslides in the area, villagers frantically dug for survivors Saturday. A battalion of Afghan National Army soldiers arrived on the scene, but a senior military commander said there was little hope of finding anyone alive.

“Because of the thickness of the mud, there was nothing we could do,” said Gen. Zahir Azimi, an army spokesman.

In a remote mountain area of northern Afghanistan, a village and more than 2,000 of its inhabitants are reportedly trapped under the earth after a landslide on Friday. (Reuters)

The landslide is the latest in a string of deadly disasters in Afghanistan, a country already struggling with terrorism, poverty and an uncertain future as the NATO-led coalition withdraws most of its remaining forces this year.

Over the past 10 days, Afghanistan has endured severe flash flooding, an earthquake and a coal-mine explosion that killed 20 miners. Friday’s landslide threatens to become one of the country’s deadliest natural disasters in at least a decade.

The mudslide followed several days of heavy rain in Badakhshan’s Argo district, a remote area that includes the Hindu Kush and Pamir mountain ranges. Many of the houses are made of mud, stone and straw, and the landslide struck without warning, officials said, instantly encasing about 350 homes.

As rescuers from neighboring villages arrived, a second slide occurred, killing nearly all of the first responders, said Mohammed Zekaria, a legislator from the area.

On Saturday, assistance teams from the United Nations and the Afghan Red Crescent Society were working to set up emergency shelters and distribute food, water and medical supplies to more than 4,000 displaced residents. But the area is largely inaccessible by vehicle, which was complicating rescue and aid efforts.

Late Friday, provincial officials pleaded for heavy equipment, noting that villagers had little to use but their hands to dig for survivors. Ari Gaitanis, a spokesman for the United Nations Mission Afghanistan, said that request would be difficult to fulfill.

“It’s not your typical easy place to get to,” Gaitanis said. “Especially with heavy machinery.”

Afghan President Hamid Karzai said he had ordered “relevant entities to provide immediate assistance to people affected by this natural disaster” and to “urgently rescue those who are trapped.”

“The president offers his heartfelt condolences and sympathies to the families of the victims and prays for patience of the bereaved and rapid recovery of the wounded,” the statement said.

President Obama said Friday that the U.S. government stood ready to provide assistance. But a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan said Saturday that the U.S. military was still on “standby” because the Afghan army had not requested additional resources.

“If they request support, we will provide support,” said Capt. Keith Robinson, a spokesman for the international coalition’s northern regional command.

Even if the U.S. military is called on, there may be limits to what it could do because American troops have been steadily reducing their footprint in Afghanistan.

As the number of coalition bases dwindles, the range of military medevac helicopters is increasingly limited. U.S. soldiers generally do not operate without the availability of medical air support.

Last week, for example, the coalition supplied bottled water for delivery to flood-ravaged parts of northern Afghanistan. But Afghan troops, not coalition soldiers, were used to transport the water directly to victims in remote areas, Robinson said.

The flash flooding followed several days of heavy rain in nine northern and western provinces. About 100 people were killed and more than 2,000 families were displaced, according to the International Organization for Migration.

The flooding coincided with a magnitude-5.7 earthquake that flattened hundreds of homes and killed at least 20 people in the eastern provinces of Nangahar and Konar. The coal-mine explosion occurred Wednesday in northern Samangan province.

“These disasters have hit every corner of our country,” said Sharifi Balkhabi, a legislator from Sar-e Pol province, where 30 people were killed in last week’s flooding. He said the worry now is that disease will spread because of the lack of clean drinking water.

Tim Craig is The Post’s bureau chief in Pakistan. He has also covered conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and within the District of Columbia government.
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