At least 2,100 dead in Afghan landslide

AP, Reuters, AFP-JIJI

A landslide triggered by heavy rain buried large sections of a remote northeastern Afghan village Friday, killing at least 2,100 people.

“More then 2,100 people from 300 families are all dead,” said Naweed Forotan, a spokesman for the Badakhshan provincial governor.

The United Nations said the focus was now on the more than 4,000 people who were displaced by the disaster. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan was working with local authorities.

“All the relevant U.N. agencies — together with the Afghan Red Crescent Society and NGO partners — are already on the ground,” the U.N. mission said. “Key needs for [displaced families] are water, medical support, counseling support, food and emergency shelter.”

The mountainous area in Badakhshan province has experienced days of heavy rain and flooding, and the side of a cliff collapsed onto the village of Hobo Barik. Landslides and avalanches are frequent in Afghanistan, but Friday’s was one of the deadliest ever.

Gov. Shah Waliullah Adeeb earlier said the landslide buried some 300 homes — about one-third of all the houses in the area.

Video footage showed a large section of the mountain had collapsed, sending mud and earth tumbling onto the village below.

The landslide was likely caused by heavy rain, said Abdullah Homayun Dehqan, the province’s director for National Disaster Department. He said floods in the past week in different districts of the province had killed four people, and eight were still missing.

Emergency workers arrived on Saturday morning to be confronted by the enormous scale of the landslide and hundreds of homeless families.

“There is a very thick layer of mud. It is very difficult for people to take dead bodies out,” said Dehqan. “There is fear of another landslide. Our assessment team have seen a crack in a nearby hill.

“They have only been able to find the body of a woman and a man,” he said.”

“We have started distributing food … but we don’t have enough tents for all the 700 families who spent the night outside,” Dehqan said. “There are around 2,000 people — women, children, elders — without homes.”

Dehqan cautioned that the death toll remained uncertain after the governor said 2,500 people could have been killed.

The site is expected to be designated a mass grave, and memorial services have been planned for later Saturday.

Authorities evacuated a nearby village over concerns about further landslides, the governor said. Dehqan said blankets and tents were sent and about 400 people from nearby villages had gathered to help with the rescue effort.

The landslide happened about 1 p.m. Friday, a day of worship in Afghanistan, when many families would have been at home instead of at work.

Badakhshan province, nestled in the Hindu Kush and Pamir mountain ranges and bordering China, is one of the remotest in the country. The area has seen few attacks from insurgents following the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.

Although landslides are common in the province, they generally happen in remote areas and produce far fewer casualties, said Mohammad Usman Abu Zar from Badakhshan province’s Meteorology Department.

U.S. President Barack Obama, speaking at a White House news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, expressed his sympathy for the Afghan people. “Just as the United States has stood with the people of Afghanistan through a difficult decade, we stand ready to help our Afghan partners as they respond to this disaster, for even as our war there comes to an end this year, our commitment to Afghanistan and its people will endure,” he said.

Afghans living in the rugged mountains of northern Afghanistan are used to natural disasters.

A landslide in Baghlan province, also in northeastern Afghanistan, killed 71 people in 2012. After days of digging unearthed only five bodies, authorities decided to halt the recovery effort and turn the area into a memorial for the dead.

Avalanches are also a factor. In February 2010, more than 170 people were killed at the 12,700-foot-high (3,800-meter) Salang Pass, which is the major route through the Hindu Kush mountains connecting the capital to the north.