300 in Afghan mudslide mass grave

Villagers and a few dozen police equipped with only basic digging tools resumed their search when daylight broke yesterday but it soon became clear there was no hope of finding survivors.

Afghan villagers offer funeral prayers for the victims buried amid debris of their collapsed houses in Argu village, Badakhshan province, Afghanistan on May 3. Nasir Waqif / EPA
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KABUL // Rescuers gave up hope yesterday of finding survivors from a landslide in north-east Afghanistan in which more than 300 villagers died, engulfed by up to 100 metres of mud.

The final death toll could rise as high as 500.

As the aid effort focused on the hundreds of people displaced, there were fears that the unstable hillside above the remote village of Ab Barak in Badakhshan province might cave in again.

It collapsed at about 11am on Friday as people were trying to recover belongings and livestock after a smaller landslip a few hours earlier. The landslides were triggered by torrential rain.

“Based on our reports, 300 houses are under the debris,” Badakhshan governor Shah Waliullah Adeeb said. “We have a list of around 300 people confirmed dead.

“We cannot continue the search and rescue operation as the houses are under metres of mud. We will offer prayers for the victims and make the area a mass grave.”

Villagers and a few dozen police equipped with only basic digging tools resumed their search when daylight broke yesterday but it soon became clear there was no hope of finding survivors.

The United Nations mission in Afghanistan said the focus was on those made homeless, either directly as a result of the landslide or as a precautionary measure from villages assessed to be at risk.

Their main needs were water, medical support, counselling support, food and emergency shelter, said Ari Gaitanis, a spokesman from the UN mission.

The President, Sheikh Khalifa, directed the Khalifa Foundation to send urgent humanitarian aid including tents, food and medicines.

The Afghan military flew rescue teams to the area. The remote mountain region is served by only narrow, poor roads which have themselves been damaged by more than a week of heavy rain.

“We have managed to get one excavator into the area, but digging looks helpless,” said Col Abdul Qadeer Sayad, a deputy police chief of Badakhshan.

He said the sheer size of the area affected, and the depth of the mud, meant that only modern machinery could help.

Hundreds of people camped out overnight in near freezing conditions, although some were given tents. Officials distributed food and water.

At least 100 people were being treated for injuries. Doctors set up facilities in a stable building.

The impoverished area, dotted with villages of mud-brick homes nestled in valleys beside bare slopes, has been hit by several landslides in recent years. This year seasonal rains and spring snow melt have killed more than 100 people and caused heavy destruction across large swathes of northern Afghanistan.

Nato-led coalition troops are on standby to assist but said the Afghan government had not asked for help.

Barack Obama said American forces were also ready to help.

“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.

About 30,000 US soldiers remain in Afghanistan, although that number is falling as Washington prepares to withdraw by the end of this year all combat troops who battled Taliban insurgents.

Police provided a security ring around the area, which has been relatively free of insurgent attacks. The Taliban said they were also willing to provide security.

* Agence France-Presse, Wam, and Reuters