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Afghanistan: Connection Between Earthquake And Atomic Tests Unlikely, Experts Say

Prague, 1 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- It's still not clear how many people have been killed and injured in the devastating earthquake which hit northern Afghanistan on Saturday (May 30).

The quake, registering 6.9 on the Richter sale, hit the mountainous Badakhshan province, an area which suffered a big earth tremor in February leaving thousands dead.

There are fears that the latest quake will prove to have been even more destructive. A spokesman for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Helge Kvam, told RFE that a team of Red Cross/Red Crescent workers landed in the remote area on Sunday night and is now trying to assess the casualties. Estimates of the death toll swing from 1,500 to five times that figure, and it's too early to say which, if any, is accurate.

Kvam said the more news that comes out of the area, the worse the situation appears to become. He says the number of injured people is particularly notable, and that the main priority over the next 48-hours will be simply medical evacuation, taking people to clinics and hospitals, mainly at the regional center Feyzabad and a local field hospital. The area is huge and difficult of access, and at the moment the Red Cross/Red Crescent has only two or three helicopters operating there.

Kvam says this is one of the worst types of situations for aid workers and doctors to be in. What they will probably have to do is to judge who is going to die anyway, and which people they have a reasonable chance of saving. That's a very, very tough task to have, he says.

Kvam says that the Red Cross/Red Crescent is now waiting for an assessment from the team on the ground before deciding on the quantity of emergency supplies, including blankets and tents, that's required. He says his organization has supplies still on hand as a result of the February earthquake, but these might not be enough in view of the severity of the new quake.

The fact that the earthquake on Northern Afghanistan has come on the heels of the atomic test blasts in neighboring Pakistan has unleashed speculation that the two events are connected, that the seismic disturbances caused by the atomic explosions actually triggered the earthquake.

Experts say this is far from likely, in part because of the distance of about 1,000 km between the earthquake site and the Pakistani test range in Baluchistan. But it is theoretically possible, says a seismological expert at the London Natural History museum, Dr Richard Herrington.

He says that if you set off a suitable nuclear explosion in a tectonically active regime it would be enough to trigger a fault system that was just waiting, with a lot of pent-up energy. He says everything depends on the fault lines. If a fault line were to connect the Pakistani test range with the Afghan earthquake area, than the two events could be related.

He says that earthquakes themselves occur along fault lines that are jammed, waiting to move. Any kind of change in the ground water pressure or some sort of jogging by a nuclear device could potentially trigger it off. He says that for instance it's known that earthquakes have been unleashed even by the building of dams.

One point however which makes less likely that the Pakistani tests are linked with the Afghan earthquake is the apparent small size of the Pakistani explosions. Reports say that according to assessments based on remote monitoring by seismologists and defense experts, the blasts left little seismic imprint.