World / 3 May 2014, 1:45pm / Mirwais Harooni and Jeremy Laurence
Kabul - Afghan officials gave up hope on Saturday of finding any survivors from a landslide in the remote north-east, putting the death toll at more than 2 100, as rescuers turned their attention to helping the over 4 000 people displaced.
Officials expressed concern the unstable hillside above the site of the disaster may cave in again, threatening the homeless as well as the UN and local rescue teams that have arrived in Badakhshan province, which borders Tajikistan.
“More than 2 100 people from 300 families are all dead,” Naweed Forotan, a spokesman for the Badakhshan provincial governor, told Reuters.
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 up to 100 metres of mud.
“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.
The UN mission in Afghanistan said the focus was now on the more than 4 000 people displaced, either directly as a result of Friday's landslide or as a precautionary measure from villages assessed to be at risk.
Their main needs are water, medicine, food and emergency shelter, said Ari Gaitanis, a spokesman from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.
The impoverished area, dotted with villages of mud-brick homes nestled in valleys beside bare slopes, has been hit by several landslides in recent years.
The side of the mountain above Ab Barak collapsed 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.
At least 100 people were being treated for injuries, most of them by medics who set up facilities in a stable building.
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.
“Just as the United States has stood with the people of Afghanistan through a difficult decade, we stand ready to help our Afghan partners as they respond to this disaster, for even as our war there comes to an end this year, our commitment to Afghanistan and its people will endure,” he said.
About 30 000 US 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 in a statement they were also willing to provide security. - Reuters