By Mirwais Harooni and Jeremy Laurence KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan officials gave up hope on Saturday of finding any survivors from a landslide in the remote northeast, with the number killed or missing put at between a few hundred and as many as 2,700.
The United Nations said the focus now was on helping more than 4,000 displaced people. International organizations and Afghan officials said at least 300 mud brick homes were buried on Friday, but precise information on the number killed was hard to come by in the impoverished province bordering Tajikistan. The U.N. mission in Afghanistan said more than 350 people were killed, but a spokesman for the local governor put the number in excess of 2,100. The Geneva-based International Organization for Migration (IOM) said 2,700 were dead or missing.
"The scale of this landslide is absolutely devastating, with an entire village practically wiped away," IOM Afghanistan Chief of Mission Richard Danziger said. "Hundreds of families have lost everything and are in immense need of assistance."
The United Nations said the focus was now on the more than 4,000 people displaced, either directly as a result of the landslide or as a precautionary measure from villages assessed to be at risk. The IOM said over 14,000 people were affected. Their main needs are water, medicine, food and emergency shelter, said Ari Gaitanis, a spokesman from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.
Officials expressed concern the unstable hillside above the site of the disaster may cave in again, threatening the homeless as well as the U.N. and local rescue teams working there. Villagers and a few dozen police, equipped with only basic digging tools, resumed their search when daylight broke but it soon became clear there was no hope of finding survivors buried in the deep mud and rubble. "Seven members of my family were here, four or five of them were killed ... I am also half alive, what can I do?" said an elderly woman, her hair covered in a pink shawl. Dotted with villages of mud-brick homes nestled in valleys beside bare slopes, Badakhshan province has been hit by several deadly landslides in recent years.
PLEA FOR HELP
The side of the mountain above Abi-Barak collapsed at around 11 a.m. (0630 GMT) on Friday as people were trying to recover belongings and livestock after a smaller landslip hit a few hours earlier. Hundreds of homes were destroyed in the landslides that were triggered by torrential rain. Officials worry another section of the mountainside could collapse at any time. The Afghan military flew rescue teams to the area on Saturday, as the remote mountain region is served by only narrow, poor roads which have themselves been damaged by more than a week of heavy rain.
"We have managed to get one excavator into the area, but digging looks hopeless," Colonel Abdul Qadeer Sayad, a deputy police chief of Badakhshan, told Reuters. He said the sheer size of the area affected, and the depth of the mud, meant that only modern machinery could help. NATO-led coalition troops are on standby to assist but on Saturday said the Afghan government had not asked for help. "I call on the government to come and help our people, to take the bodies out," said a middle-aged man, standing on a hill overlooking the river of mud where his village once stood. "We managed to take out only 10-15 people, the rest of our villagers here are trapped."
Hundreds of people camped out overnight in near freezing conditions, although some were given tents. Officials distributed food and water. Seasonal rains and spring snow melt have caused devastation across large swathes of northern Afghanistan, killing more than 100 people before this latest disaster. U.S. President Barack Obama said American forces were on standby to help.
About 30,000 U.S. soldiers remain in Afghanistan, although that number is falling as Washington prepares to withdraw all combat troops who battled Taliban insurgents by the end of this year. Police said they had provided a security ring around the area, which has been relatively free of insurgent attacks. The Taliban said they were also willing to provide security.
(Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi; Writing by Jeremy Laurence; Editing by Robert Birsel and Stephen Powell)