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Afghanistan: Death Toll From Floods Appears Lower Than Feared

Hundreds of Afghans were reported killed by floodwaters raging through mountain gorges across the country in the past week. Rivers already swollen by snowmelt from the harshest winter in years have been overflowing in the wake of heavy rains. But as the floodwaters recede in some areas, the death toll doesn't appear to be as high as initially reported by provincial officials.

Prague, 22 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- United Nations officials said today that, so far, they can confirm just two of 115 deaths that had been reported as a result of flooding in Uruzgan Province.

UN spokesman Martin Battersby says the bodies of an adult and one child have been found near Deh Rawood, about 120 kilometers north of Kandahar. The two were caught up in the waters of the Helmand River when it overflowed on 18 March.
"We, ourselves [should act decisively], through each individual and people's cooperation in villages, in districts, and provinces, we should stand up together and fight natural disasters." -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai

An Afghan Health Ministry official in Kabul, Azizullah Atghar, says 12 people from Uruzgan have been officially reported as missing.

Uruzgan Governor Jan Mohammed Khan insists the real number of missing is much higher. But he said today he has no information about any fatalities.

That remark contradicts a statement the Uruzgan governor made on 20 March, when he said 115 deaths had been confirmed in the province as a result of flooding.

In Kabul, officials today were reporting the total death toll across the north and west of the country at about 26.

Regardless of the actual death toll, the flooding has caused a humanitarian crisis. In several provinces, the surging waters have destroyed thousands of mud-brick homes that were built close to dry riverbeds during years of drought.

The situation prompted a call yesterday by Afghan President Hamid Karzai for ordinary Afghans to do whatever they can to help those in need.

"We, ourselves [should act decisively], through each individual and people's cooperation in villages, in districts, and provinces, we should stand up together and fight natural disasters," Karzai said.

UN and Afghan officials anticipated the crisis. A month ago, authorities in Kabul began to meet with UN staff, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and U.S.-led coalition commanders to coordinate their emergency response plans.

"Definitely, coalition forces have been involved in the preparation for any type of flood relief response -- whether it be rescue or relief aid," says Lieutenant Cindy Moore, a spokeswoman for coalition forces in Afghanistan. "We've been involved with the UN, as well as ISAF and the government of Afghanistan, in trying to put together a plan in case there were situations where citizens needed to be evacuated, rescued, or just have relief provided to them in the area where they live."

The advance planning led to the rescue of hundreds of people in Deh Rawood on 18 and 19 March, when the Helmand River overflowed. That's because the Afghan government was able to quickly call in U.S. military helicopters for an emergency evacuation.

The coalition also sent in American A-10 fighter planes -- which normally provide close air support to U.S. Special Forces commando teams battling Taliban fighters.

Moore confirmed that the fighter pilots used their high-tech targeting systems as search devices to locate endangered civilians at night. The fighter pilots were able to direct rescue helicopters to dozens of Afghans who were at risk of being washed away by the flooding.

U.S. troops are now working with the United Nations and Afghan government officials to distribute tents, medicine, and food supplies in the Deh Rawood area.

Moore says the situation in Uruzgan Province is no longer considered critical. But she says the threat of flooding is being closely monitored across the country.

"Everyone will continue to look at areas that might need assistance -- from the government of Afghanistan, ISAF, the UN, the coalition, and other relief efforts -- certainly the Red Cross and the Red Crescent, UNICEF, and different other agencies within the ministries of Afghanistan," she says. "We hope to support, if called upon, in any way. We [in the U.S.-led coalition forces] do stand by and are ready to support any rescue or relief efforts that we are asked to do."

UN spokeswoman Ariane Quentier says the World Food Program also has been airlifting tons of food and cooking oil -- along with tents, blankets, and plastic sheeting -- to hard-hit areas.

The provinces of Farah, Herat, Faryab, and Ghor also have been hit by flooding. Provincial officials say large numbers of livestock have been killed and many mud-brick houses have collapsed.