Afghan aid efforts are threatened by violent aftershocks

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The Independent Online

Aftershocks measuring up to 5.2 on the Richter scale from the earthquakes in northern Afghanistan continued yesterday, triggering landslides and blocking roads for relief convoys attempting to reach the stricken areas.

Amid confusion over the death toll – estimated by the Afghan government at around 2,000 – Hamid Karzai, the interim Afghan prime minister, was heckled by homeless people when he visited the devastated town of Nahrin.

Emergency supplies have already begun to arrive in significant volumes to the area despite the difficulties. There were, however, discrepancies about the estimated final death toll. The United Nations and aid agencies forecast the final count would not exceed 800, Mr Karzai thought it was a thousand, but the Afghan defence ministry maintained it was likely to be higher than the original estimate of 2,000.

Mr Karzai told a crowd of several hundred: "All the people of Afghanistan share your pain. You have been very, very brave, and you haven't asked for much." Some in the crowd shouted back that they needed urgent help from him and the international community.

However, the presence in the country of the international aid agencies and the multinational force, following the fall of the Taliban, has resulted in a relatively swift response. By Tuesday evening – less than a full day since the tremors struck – 158 tonnes of food, 2,100 tents and medicine has been delivered to Nahrin, and shipments of warm clothing, mattresses, blankets and cooking utensils were on their way.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has sent 400 first aid kits, and Médecins Sans Frontières sent two medical teams to the area. Twelve members of the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) have flown to the region from Bagram airbase to assess what help can be offered.

The international force will be able to fly in supplies on C-130 transport aircraft to the military airfield at Mazar-i-Sharif, north-west of the earthquake area, and distribute it either by helicopters or road.

By contrast, it took aid workers more than a week to reach damaged areas after an earthquake in northern Afghanistan four years ago. The United Nations' spokesman, Manoel de Almeida e Silva, said: "This time the agencies were on the ground, and we had the supplies in the surrounding areas, so things are manageable."

George Dutreix, of Médecins Sans Frontières, said: "This is not like 1998. The relief supplies that are available in the area are enough."

However, aid workers have been unable to get to some of the more isolated of the 42 villages hit by the tremors because of unexploded ordnance and mines on the roads, and clouds of swirling dust have led to some aid flights being cancelled.

About 30,000 people are believed to be homeless, and survivors at Nahrin and surrounding villages spent a second day yesterday pulling out dead bodies from the rubble.

The ICRC said that about 750 bodies had been recovered so far, and 500 of them have already been buried in an attempt to prevent the spread of diseases.

Officials flying over the area reported devastation. One witness, Selim Nasruddin, said: "There are people crawling through what is left of their homes, pulling out the bodies of the members of their family.We are seeing rows of dead bodies laid out on the ground. Generations have been wiped out." Joerg Denker, a programme manager for the aid group Mercy Corps, said: "Everything is in ruins. There's nothing standing anymore".

The provincial military commander, General Haider Khan, described how he had come across rescue workers pulling out 10 members of a family from the ruins of their home – only an 11-year-old boy had survived. "It was very, very difficult for me to look at this," he said.

A spokesman for the Afghan defence ministry said: "We think the death toll is now more than 2,000 and is going to go up dramatically as we dig through rubble in Nahrin and reach outlying villages.

"There have been many new casualties, caused by the aftershocks, at Burkah, which is about 12 miles north of Nahrin. So far no substantial aid has reached there because of destroyed roads."