Quake death toll is blamed on extreme cold

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The Independent Online
Thousands of people have been killed by a severe earthquake in northern Afghanis-tan, the opposition alliance and the country's Taleban government said yesterday.

Some Western experts believe the reported figure may be too high, because the remote opposition-ruled Takhar province affected is sparsely populated. But the Taleban Islamic government in Kabul said 3,230 people were killed while the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) news service quoted opposition alliance sources as saying at least 3,600 had died. Afghanistan's mission at the United Nations said more than 4,000 bodies had been recovered.

Swedish seismologists said the earthquake last Wednesday measured 6.1 on the Richter scale, which a spokesman said was "not extreme", but "if it's close to the surface and construction is poor, it could cause considerable damage". A Pakistani seismic centre put it at 5.6.

Afghanistan's ambassador to the UN, Ravan Farhadi, said he had received the information about 4,000 recovered bodies from the authorities in Taloqan, in Takhar province. Mr Farhadi said the earthquake was centred on the city of Rustaq and had destroyed more than 20 villages. More than 2,000 homes had been ruined and the region was snow-covered and extremely cold at night, he added. An airport west of Rustaq was operating and could handle relief supplies.

The Taleban leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, was reported to have ordered his forces to halt all military operations against the opposition on the Takhar front.

In Geneva, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said it had sent a team from Dushanbe, in Tajikistan, to assess the damage. But spokesman Jon Valfells said the Geneva-based disaster relief agency would not confirm a toll of 3,600 people or more. "We have nothing to confirm that. It is a very, very high figure for an earthquake in a sparsely populated area," he said. "We know it was a strong quake, over six on the Richter scale - even our delegation felt tremors in Kabul."

Another federation spokesman noted that a major quake in Kobe, Japan, in January 1995, had claimed 6,430 lives. "That was a built-up area, whereas this is a sparsely population one. We regard this [figure] with great suspicion."

- Reuters, Islamabad

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