Thousands killed as quake hits Afghanistan

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The Independent Online
INTERNATIONAL aid agencies were struggling yesterday to reach the remote north of Afghanistan, where an earthquake is thought to have killed thousands of people, burying them alive in rubble and landslides.

It was the second disaster to strike the Badakhshan province in only four months. An earthquake in February killed about 4,000 people and left thousands homeless in freezing temperatures. The latest quake was even worse, said John Lorie, of Merlin (Medical Emergency Relief International), the largest aid agency working in Afghanistan.

"People are still being dug out of the rubble. This was bigger than February, so we are mobilising for a bigger effort," he said. "We are hearing by radio of at least 2,000 dead and 2,000 injured, but this is such a remote area that if it is like the last one, the next few days will reveal many more casualties."

The relief agency said that about 30 villages have been destroyed in Badakhshan province and 20 in the neighbouring Rustaq area - the epicentre of February's catastrophe. "Some in Rustaq will have been hit for the second time. Four months ago they lost their homes, their relatives, their livestock, only to be hit again."

The 100km-long belt of devastation spans the most inaccessible part of landlocked Afghanistan, at least 100km east of the nearest international airport at Faizabad. There are no roads suitable for vehicles so the only access for medics and supplies will be by helicopter, The alternative is a three- to four-day trek by donkey.

Spring weather gives some ground for optimism. Now the snows have melted, aid workers should be able to reach the disaster zone, while homeless Afghans have more chance of surviving in the open than they did in February. Relief operations after the February quake were dogged by the poor weather which prevented aircraft from landing.

The disaster zone is not under the control of the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban government in Kabul, and that may complicate the relief operation. A spokesman for the anti-Taliban alliance which controls the region said: "We need help desperately. Thousands of people are dead."

Speaking near the border with the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan he said anti-Taliban soldiers had already recovered about 1,700 bodies from the rubble.

Although the Afghan earthquake was powerful, with a magnitude of about 6.9, the disaster and its predecessor in February do not rank among the most lethal in the world, largely because the mountainous terrain of northern Afghanistan is sparsely inhabited.

About 240,000 were killed at Tangshan, China, in July 1976; 70,000 were killed in northern Peru in May 1970; while the Armenian earthquake of December 1988 claimed some 25,000 victims.