Afghan quake leaves 2,000 dead and 30,000 homeless

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The Independent Online

New tremors shook northern Afghanistan today hindering international aid agencies arriving in the area where a massive earthquake on Monday killed more than 2,000 people, injured 4,000 others and left another 30,000 homeless.

New tremors shook northern Afghanistan today hindering international aid agencies arriving in the area where a massive earthquake on Monday killed more than 2,000 people, injured 4,000 others and left another 30,000 homeless.

The aftershocks, including one that measured 5.4, rumbled through the villages in the foothills of the snow-capped Hindu Kush mountains, where Monday's earthquake flattened towns and villages.

The Afghan government has described the quakes as a "catastrophe" and said they feared the final death toll may be as high as 5,000.

The regional capital of Nahrin was torn apart by the tremors, with about 1,500 homes reported to be destroyed. Rescue workers, using thewir bae hands, dug out hundreds of bodies from the city and surrounding villages still shaking from continuing aftershocks.

The area most hit – which is about 90 miles north of the capital, Kabul – and its 85,000 inhabitants were already suffering from drought and food shortages. Aid workers said relief facilities would be overwhelmed by the disaster. Food, medicine, warm clothing and tents were among supplies swept away.

Roads and bridges being repaired after 23 years of war also suffered widespread damage. The Salang Tunnel, the key route to the north, reopened just two months ago, was closed after two trucks crashed during the tremors.

The first earthquake, measured at 6.0 on the Richter scale, took place at about 7pm local time, destroying Nahrin. A series of aftershocks was followed by a second quake 16 hours later, registering 5.0.

The interim government in Kabul said it would be unable to cope and asked for urgent foreign help. The British-led International Security Assistance Force have sent reconnaissance teams, in two Chinook helicopters, to the stricken area.

Some international peacekeepers, including Britons, were stationed in the area, but there were no reports of casualties. The force of the tremors meant that ISAF headquarters at Kabul had to be evacuated.

ISAF troops are expected to be widely involved in the rescue operations. The 1,700 strong British expeditionary force, led by Royal Marines, will, however, concentrate on military operations against remnants of the Taliban and al-Qa'ida rather than take part in humanitarian missions, defence sources said.

Witnesses spoke of a wasteland created by the quakes. The regional commander, General Ali Khalil, who flew over the area, said: "From the helicopter we could not see one single building standing in and around Nahrin. People are bringing out the dead bodies of their families into the yards of their houses and onto the streets."

Shoja Zare, who works for a French charity, Acted, said: "Each five or 10 minutes there is a shake still going on. There is no hospital, there is no doctor to help these people."

The interim Prime Minister, Hamid Karzai, cancelled a scheduled trip to Turkey and called a meeting of his cabinet. He said: "We are sending rescue teams, but aftershocks are making relief efforts dangerous. We need all the help we can get."

The Home Affairs minister, Yunus Qanuni, on his way to the disaster area, said: "This is a catastrophe for us. It is beyond the interim government to deal with this tragedy. We have got to ask all international agencies and foreign countries to help."

Mr Karzai's officials reported that about 4,800 were dead. But the UN said it put the figure at about 2,000, although this was expected to rise.

In New York, Kofi Annan, the United Nations Secretary General, said: "We would do everything possible to help, with the aim of assisting the interim administration to deal with this tragedy in a country that has suffered so much in recent years."

Han Seung-Soo of South Korea, president of the 189-nation UN General Assembly, urged governments to act quickly because it was "doubly tragic that this natural disaster should hit a country that is finally experiencing a measure of peace and where children have just returned to school".

A team from the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross are on their way to Nahrin. The European Commission's aid agency, Echo, has sent 500 tents and 1,000 blankets.

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