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Death Toll Lowered in Afghanistan

March 27, 2002

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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) _ A powerful earthquake devastated mountain villages in northern Afghanistan, where officials estimated hundreds had died and thousands more were injured in a region already hard-hit by hunger, drought and war.

Afghan government officials initially said 1,800 were killed, but aid agencies estimated early Wednesday that the death toll was much lower. Ros O’Sullivan, project coordinator from Concern Worldwide, said aid workers believe 200 people were killed in the town of Nahrin and surrounding villages in the Hindu Kush mountains.

The toll could go somewhat higher, he said, but was not expected to exceed ``the low hundreds,″ O’Sullivan said. That conclusion was reached Tuesday night during a meeting of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and relief groups at the scene.

U.N. spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva said confusion over the toll is common in the early stages of disasters, especially in remote areas where communication is poor and where people who flee are often initially reported as missing or dead.

Afghan Defense Ministry official Mira Jan had said 600 bodies had been recovered from the Monday night quake, and that 90 percent of Nahrin has been destroyed.

Gen. Haider Khan, the Baglan region’s military commander, said the death toll could reach 2,000, and he estimated that 600 and 1,000 people remained trapped and 20,000 mud-brick houses had collapsed. His spokesman, Nurullah, said about 400 people had been buried _ some in mass graves.

Yusuf Nuristani, a government spokesman, said in Kabul that the death toll had reached 1,800 by Tuesday afternoon with 2,000 injured. Kabul television later reported 5,000 hurt. In Geneva, U.N. spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said Afghan authorities had initially reported the death toll could reach 4,800.

O’Sullivan said aid agencies estimated that up to 30,000 people were homeless, as aftershocks continued to jolt the majestic Hindu Kush mountains that tower above Kabul and separate the capital from the extreme north of the country.

There were fears of landslides as the earth continued to heave after the Monday night quake, which was centered about 105 miles north of Kabul.

No Americans or foreigners were known to be among the missing or dead. Brig. Gen. John Rosa Jr. told a Pentagon briefing that no coalition forces were hurt by the quake.

The old part of Nahrin town was leveled and some 40 other villages on Nahrin plain were affected, prompting aid groups to gear up to provide shelter for 6,000 to 7,000 families in that area alone, the United Nations said.

``These people were hit by 20 years of war, three to four years of drought and now comes the earthquake,″ said Mirielle Borne, an aid worker with the independent agency ACTED who arrived in the stricken town as night fell Tuesday.

``It just keeps piling up. They just take it as it comes. It’s a matter of holding on to the next day.″

Immediate concerns included getting water, food and shelter to the area, where 80 percent of the families had been targeted before the quake to receive wheat from the World Food Program.

Borne expected villagers from even more remote regions to arrive in district centers by donkey or on foot in coming days, seeking help and bringing word of additional damage and casualties.

The only good news, she said, was the weather. ``It is cold, but there is no rain or snow, and people are either sleeping at relatives homes or are sheltering in the rubble.″

An aftershock hit the region Tuesday evening, reinforcing fears of going back inside poorly constructed houses.

Kabul television reported that 12,000 yards of white cloth had been sent to wrap the dead from the second fatal earthquake in the area this month.

Many people were at home when the quake struck about 7:30 p.m. Monday, accounting for the high death toll, officials said.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake was relatively shallow _ about 3 miles beneath the surface _ meaning it had the power to cause more damage.

With the scope of the disaster only becoming apparent a day later, the Baglan provincial military commander, Gen. Khan, said he was shaken by the tragic scenes as he toured the area.

In one village, Khan said he came across workers pulling 10 members of a single family from the ruins. Only one family member, an 11-year-old boy, survived and was being cared for by relatives.

``It was very, very difficult for me to look at this,″ Khan said.

Many roads were impassable, and six Afghan army helicopters were flown to the region to remove the dead and transport immunization experts, medical kits and officials. The U.S. Army, the international peacekeeping force and aid agencies were mobilizing aid and experts.

Medecins Sans Frontiers, or Doctors Without Borders, joined ACTED in the quake region Tuesday. Mobile medical teams from Doctors Without Borders treated 160 injured, evacuating the most critical cases to Pul-e-Kurmi, Byrs said.

The quake, the second to hit the Hindu Kush mountains in three weeks, created huge challenges for the new interim government. It has struggled to establish its authority in the fractious nation and encourage the return of refugees to rebuild the country after the defeat of the Taliban.

Interim leader Hamid Karzai planned to visit the devastated region Wednesday, Nuristani said. Cabinet ministers were already on the scene.

The government allocated the equivalent of $600,000 for immediate emergency assistance, and pledged $147 to families of those killed and $88 for families who suffered injuries, Nuristani said. ``The administration is doing the best it can.″

He said the quake was magnitude 6.2. The USGS measured it at 6.1 with an overnight aftershock of 5.0.

Gen. Khalil, a military commander from Pul-e-Kumri, said they didn’t have enough helicopters to transport all the injured. He said he had seen no houses standing in Nahrin, and that the stench of decomposing bodies was permeating the quake area.

``Everyone is trying to find the members of their families to bring them out of the destroyed walls or collapsed areas,″ Khalil said.

The Army at Bagram air base, about 60 miles from the quake’s epicenter, sent an assessment team to see if American troops could play a role, said spokesman Maj. Bryan Hilferty.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said because the United States already was involved in food relief and other humanitarian work in Afghanistan it had sufficient supplies on hand to take care of the people.

Earthquakes and seismic activity are common in the Hindu Kush mountains. Strong quakes in February and May of 1998 killed nearly 10,000 people.

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