First rescue teams reach quake area

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The Independent Online
A Red Cross plane packed with emergency medical and water sanitation supplies managed to land yesterday near the site of the earthquake which hit Afghanistan last week.

The massive earthquake, which killed between 2,000 and 4,000 villagers in the mountainous Takhar province, struck last Wednesday night. Hundreds of bodies remain to be dug out from under landslides and collapsed mud huts. There may still be survivors buried in the rubble. Fifteen thousand families are said to have been made homeless. But only now are the first foreign rescue teams arriving in the area.

Many people died in their beds as their houses collapsed and many others were swept away in landslides. So remote is this part of the country that word of the disaster reached Kabul, 200 miles to the south, 48 hours later. Aid agencies have been struggling to reach the place ever since.

The problems are numerous. There have been a number of powerful aftershocks. Afghanistan's Taliban government which is at war with the anti-Taliban alliance in the north-east of the country is said to have bombed Rustaq, capital of Takhar province, in recent days. The Taliban have been slow to permit planes to fly to the region from Kabul. The region is in the grip of winter: the cold will have maximised casualties and makes landing on primitive air strips hazardous or impossible. Another Red Cross plane flying to the region yesterday was forced to turn back because of bad weather.

The other route into the region is across the Tajikistan border to north, but the border guards have so far refused to admit rescue teams.

Uncertainty surrounds the number of casualties left by the quake. Afghanistan's Red Crescent released a preliminary figure of 2,150 dead.

Two doctors from Medecins Sans Frontieres, who were the first foreigners on the scene when they arrived on Saturday, said they had already treated 400 casualties and that deaths greatly exceeded injuries because the disaster had occurred at night.