2,000 Killed in Afghan Quakes

Reuters

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Some 2,000 people were killed and more than 3,000 injured after a series of earthquakes flattened a district capital and villages in northern Afghanistan late Monday night and Tuesday morning.

"It was a very heart-rending catastrophe. About 2,000 died," Interior Minister Yunus Qanuni told reporters, adding that the government simply couldn't cope with the scale of the disaster.

"The bodies of 1,800 have been pulled out of the rubble, but many more are still buried. More than 3,000 have been injured and 30,000 displaced," he said.

"It is beyond the interim government to deal with this tragedy. We ask all international agencies and foreign countries to help us in this emergency situation," he said at Kabul airport before flying to war-ravaged Afghanistan's latest disaster zone.

Officials and aid workers said aftershocks continued Tuesday afternoon, hampering rescue efforts and terrifying residents in the devastated market town of Nahrin, a district capital of mud-brick buildings, and surrounding villages.

"We are sending rescue teams, but aftershocks make relief efforts dangerous," a Defense Ministry spokesman said.

Nahrin, near the epicenter in the rugged Hindu Kush mountains, had been destroyed and 1,500 homes had crumbled, officials and aid workers said.

"Around 90 percent of residential houses in old and new Nahrin towns have been destroyed by the earthquake and aftershocks," said Ehsan Ahmad Zahin of the French aid agency ACTED, which has a team on the spot.

"The first priority is to send shelter, blankets, food and water," Zahin said after quakes that measured between five and six on the Richter scale.

A team from the United Nations, aid agencies and the International Committee for the Red Cross headed from the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif to assess the damage, taking hundreds of tents and blankets, officials said.

Interim leader Hamid Karzai cancelled a trip to Turkey scheduled for Wednesday because of the quake and called a meeting of all ministries to make plans to deal with the latest disaster to strike the country, officials said.

In Geneva, the UN's Organization for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said it had heard unconfirmed reports from Karzai's office of 4,800 deaths, but Afghan officials said they had no evidence the toll was that high.

Afghan helicopter pilot Mohammed Haroon said the quakes left little standing in Nahrin.

"I found all houses flattened," he said. "People have fled to wherever they can. Aftershocks were continuing when I left at noon. We are rushing medicine and supplies as well as shrouds for the dead to the area."

"The people are terrified and there is great confusion," said Sibghatullah Zaki, a spokesman for northern warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, who was in the area.

It was the second major earthquake to hit northern Afghanistan this month. More than 100 people were buried by a landslide in a remote village in neighboring Samangan province on March 3 after the last quake.

Afghanistan is already struggling with the impact of a long drought, insecurity and the aftermath of fighting between U.S.-led forces and the former Taliban rulers.

Aid workers in Mazar-i-Sharif, 200 kilometers northwest of Nahrin, said they felt the quake Monday night and ran out into the streets. Light shocks were also felt in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.

ACTED's Zahin said the aftershocks continued until 3 p.m. Tuesday. There were reports that other remote areas had also been hit, but it was not immediately possible to reach them, he said.

The U.S. Geological Survey in Colorado said the first shock, measuring 6.0 on the Richter scale, was felt at 7:26 p.m. Monday and the epicenter was very close to Nahrin, 160 kilometers north of Kabul.

Another quake at 2:15 a.m. Tuesday measured 5.0 on the Richter scale, USGS said on its web site. A spokesman for the British-led International Security Assistance Force said the Afghan government had asked the peacekeepers to send teams to the earthquake area to assess casualties and the extent of damage.

"We have been asked to send ISAF reconnaissance teams to see how we can help," Colonel Neal Peckham told reporters in Kabul.

U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said his government would provide help "in dealing with this tragedy."

Earthquakes are relatively frequent in the Hindu Kush mountain range. In 1998, two earthquakes killed about 8,500 people and destroyed tens of thousands of houses in Takhar and Badakhshan provinces.