Officials say 1,800 killed in powerful earthquake

Wednesday, March 27, 2002

KABUL, Afghanistan -- An earthquake devastated mountain villages in northern Afghanistan, where officials on Tuesday estimated at least 1,800 people died and thousands more were injured in a region already hard-hit by hunger, drought and war.

At the scene, the military commander from the Baglan region said the Monday night quake collapsed 20,000 mud-brick houses. Gen. Haider Kahn estimated between 600 and 1,000 people remained trapped and said the death toll could hit 2,000.

Yusuf Nuristani, a government spokesman, told reporters in Kabul that the death toll had reached 1,800 by Tuesday afternoon with 2,000 injured. Kabul television later reported 5,000 hurt. In Geneva, U.N. spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said Afghan authorities had initially reported the death toll could reach 4,800.

Aid agencies said thousands -- perhaps tens of thousands -- were homeless, as aftershocks continued to jolt the majestic Hindu Kush mountains that tower above Kabul and separate the capital from the extreme north of the country.

There were fears of landslides as the earth continued to heave after the Monday night quake.

No Americans or foreigners were known to be among the missing or dead. Brig. Gen. John Rosa Jr. told a Pentagon briefing that no coalition forces were hurt by the quake.

Many were at home

The town of Nahrin was reported destroyed, along with five other villages.

Afghan Defense Ministry official Mira Jan said 600 bodies had been recovered. Kabul television reported that 12,000 yards of white cloth had been sent to wrap the dead from the second fatal earthquake in the area this month.

Many people in the rural region were at home when the quake struck about 7:30 p.m. Monday, accounting for the high death toll, officials said.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake was relatively shallow -- about 40 miles beneath the surface -- meaning it had the power to cause more damage.

"People were caught in their homes," said Nigel Fisher, a senior U.N. official in Afghanistan.

Many people from the region had fled drought and conflict into Pakistan and had not returned to their homes. "In a sense it's lucky there weren't more people there," Fisher said.

With the scope of the disaster only becoming apparent a day later, the Baglan provincial military commander, Gen. Khan, said he was shaken by the tragic scenes as he toured the area.

In one village, Khan said he came across workers pulling 10 members of a single family from the ruins. Only one family member, an 11-year-old boy, survived and was being cared for by relatives.

"It was very, very difficult for me to look at this," Khan said.

Aid flown in

Many roads were impassable, and six Afghan army helicopters were flown to the region to remove the dead and transport immunization experts, medical kits and officials. The U.S. Army, the international peacekeeping force and aid agencies were mobilizing aid and experts.

The independent aid agency ACTED and Medecins Sans Frontieres reached the quake region Tuesday, and ACTED distributed 500 tents and 1,000 blankets, Byrs said.

Officials in Kabul said ACTED had 500 more tents and 1,000 blankets and that the World Food Program was sending 175 tons of food. The United Nations and the European Commission also were rushing in aid.

The quake, the second to hit the Hindu Kush mountains in three weeks, created huge challenges for the new interim government. It has struggled to establish its authority in the fractious nation and encourage the return of refugees to rebuild the country after the defeat of the Taliban.

Interim leader Hamid Karzai planned to visit the devastated region today, Nuristani said.

Interior Minister Yunus Qanooni, Health Minister Dr. Suhaila Sidiq and Gen. Mostapha of the Defense Ministry were already on the scene.

Earthquakes and seismic activity are common in the Hindu Kush mountains. Strong quakes in February and May of 1998 killed nearly 10,000 people.

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