Search called off after Afghan landslide kills at least 300
AAB BAREEK, Afghanistan (UPDATED) – Rescue teams abandoned the search for survivors on Saturday after a landslide buried a hillside village in northern Afghanistan, killing at least 300 people under a fast-moving tide of rock and mud.
Local people and emergency workers using shovels tried in vain to find victims trapped under the massive landslide that engulfed Aab Bareek village in Badakhshan province.
Officials said that the final death toll could rise as high as 500 after Friday's disaster, updating earlier information that 2,500 people were feared dead.
"Based on our reports, 300 houses are under the debris," Badakhshan governor Shah Waliullah Adeeb told reporters at the scene. "We have a list of around 300 people confirmed dead.
"We cannot continue the search and rescue operation anymore, as the houses are under meters of mud. We will offer prayers for the victims and make the area a mass grave."
Relief teams arrived at first light on Saturday to be confronted by the enormous scale of destruction and hundreds of homeless families who had spent a night in the open.
"The first figure (of 2,500 feared dead) that we announced was obtained from local people, not from our technical team," Gul Mohammad Bedar, the deputy governor of Badakhshan, told the Agence France-Presse (AFP).
"We think the death toll will not rise beyond 500."
Many villagers were at Friday prayers in two mosques when they were entombed by the torrent of debris, and a second landslide hit people who had rushed to assist those in need.
"I have lost my sister, my house was partially destroyed," Noor Mohammad, 45, told AFP.
"We can not really get anyone out of the debris. We have lost hope of rescuing anyone."
Gul Bibi, 50, cried while she sat in a tent with some female relatives.
"We were at home when the first landslide happened," she said. "We left the house, but my husband and son went back inside, then the second one hit.
"We have not been able to find them. We are devastated."
Tents, food needed
The landslide in the Argo district of Badakhshan left little evidence of the hundreds of homes it swept away at about midday (0730 GMT) after days of heavy rain.
"There is a very thick layer of mud. It is very difficult for people to take dead bodies out," Sayed Abdullah Homayun Dehqan, provincial director of the Afghan National Disaster Management Authority, said at the site.
"They have only been able to find the body of a woman and a man.
"There is fear of another landslide. Our assessment team have seen a crack in a nearby hill.
"We have started distributing food... but we don't have enough tents for all the 700 families who spent the night outside. There are around 2,000 people – women, children, elders – without homes."
President Hamid Karzai expressed his condolences to those affected, and announced a national day of mourning on Sunday.
The UN mission in Afghanistan said its staff had been working on the ground, along with the Afghan Red Crescent and other aid groups.
"The immediate focus is on approximately 700 families displaced either directly as a result of this slide or as a precautionary measure from villages assessed to be at further risk," UNAMA said in a statement.
"Key needs for them are water, medical support, counselling support, food and emergency shelter."
The European Union's foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton and aid commissioner Kristalina Georgieva offered their condolences to families of victims of the disaster and said the EU stood ready to help.
"The High Representative and the Commissioner are deeply concerned and saddened to hear of the devastating landslide reported to have claimed the lives of many inhabitants of the Badakshan province in Afghanistan," they said in a statement.
"The European Union is following closely the situation in coordination with the Afghan authorities and relevant international partners [and] is ready to provide assistance."
'An awful tragedy'
Badakhshan is a remote, mountainous province in northeast Afghanistan bordering Tajikistan, China and Pakistan.
It has been relatively peaceful since the US-led military intervention began in 2001, but has seen increasing Taliban activity in recent years.
US President Barack Obama described the deaths as "an awful tragedy" and pledged to help the relief effort.
The landslides follow recent severe flooding in other parts of northern Afghanistan, with 150 people dead and 67,000 people affected by floods in Jowzjan, Faryab and Sar-e-Pul provinces.
Flooding and landslides often occur during the spring rainy season in northern Afghanistan, with flimsy mud houses offering little protection against rising water levels and torrents of mud.
Afghanistan is in the middle of presidential elections, with former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah and ex-World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani due to compete in a head-to-head vote on June 7.
Both candidates called for urgent action to support those affected by the landslide.
Preliminary results from the first round of elections on April 5, in which eight candidates ran, showed no one gained the 50 percent needed for a decisive victory. – Rappler.com