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Afghanistan: Relief Efforts Fail Earthquake Victims

By Esther Pan

Prague, 12 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- One week after an earthquake rocked northeastern Afghanistan, killing thousands and destroying dozens of villages, international aid organizations are still struggling to bring aid to survivors.

Snowstorms and low fog have prevented flights carrying humanitarian aid from landing, and supply trucks cannot cross the icy mountain roads ravaged by years of civil war.

AP reports that today there are more journalists than aid workers at the quake site. Rescue workers fear the spread of diseases from a shortage of drinking water and dwindling food supplies, as well as more deaths from the cold.

The earthquake that hit the mountainous Takhar province on February 4 measured 6.1 on the Richter scale, killed over 4,000 people and left 15,000 homeless.

The quake struck isolated mountain villages, crumbling hillside houses made of earth, mud and brick and collapsing roofs heavy with snow on their occupants.

A series of aftershocks over the weekend set off landslides that crumpled entire hillsides.

Abdullah, a representative of the military alliance that controls the region, said that 28 villages had been destroyed by the earthquake or subsequent landslides.

The hardest hit was the Rustaq region, located between the Hindu Kush and Pamir mountain ranges. The same AP report says villagers are huddled in thin wool blankets in the remote mountain village of Rostaq, 150 miles (250 km) north of the Afghan capital Kabul. Many of them had walked from their destroyed villages to seek help, flooding into Rostaq and waiting in vain for rescue workers to arrive.

Yesterday, the first helicopter carrying humanitarian aid landed in Rostaq. It flew from Tajikistan with bread, clothes and medicine.

Relief workers have been trying to reach the area since Sunday, using trucks, helicopters, even a caravan of donkeys and horses to carry food and medical supplies from Pakistan in the south and Tajikistan in the north.

Sarah Russell, a UN spokesman, said that the convoy teams could not cross the treacherous snow-covered mountain passes and failed to reach the victims.

The French aid organization Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) was the first international aid group on the scene, said Pierre Salignon, director of MSF's Afghanistan program.

Salignon said an MSF team arrived in Rostaq on Saturday and set up medical centers in Rostaq and the provincial capital of Taloqan, 30 miles to the south, where they are offering medical care and assisting local doctors in surgery.

The UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance to Afghanistan, or UNOCHA, is directing UN aid efforts from Faizabad in neighboring Badakhshan Province. Three UN disaster relief experts arrived in Islamabad, Pakistan, today to organize logistics for the relief operations.

The UN and International Red Cross have assembled tons of food, blankets, tents, plastic sheeting and high-protein biscuits for the disaster area. The UN said it has six flights a day ready to bring relief aid to the area. The problem now is getting it there.

The situation is so desperate that the Red Cross and UN are considering parachuting supplies to the region.

The United States announced today that it had sent close to one million dollars worth of supplies to the area, and that up to 15 million dollars could be used to transport the supplies.

According to UNOCHA, up to 600,000 dollars could be available for disaster relief in Afghanistan from various sources, including UN emergency funds and the British and Norwegian governments.

In Tajikistan, President Emomali Rakhmonov offered condolences to the Afghan people and said his government will give humanitarian aid to quake victims and open its airfields for the UN transport planes. Tajik doctors with 660 pounds of medicine went to the region Monday.

The situation is complicated by the disaster's location in an area controlled by the military alliance opposed to Taliban -- the fundamentalist Islamic group that controls 85 percent of the country -- but close to the Taliban stronghold of Kunduz.

Sporadic fighting has been reported between the groups, although Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar announced a unilateral three-day ceasefire on Saturday so opposition soldiers could assist in earthquake relief efforts.

MSF's Salignon said rescue workers are not threatened by the ongoing civil war. He said the area is calm, and that relief workers feel safe working there.