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Afghanistan: Thousands Feared Dead In Series Of Earthquakes

Details are beginning to emerge about a series of deadly earthquakes that struck northern Afghanistan yesterday and early today. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz spoke with members of the UN refugee agency about the devastation -- as well as the expected impact on thousands of refugees who were due to return to the worst-hit area in Baghlan Province.

Prague, 26 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- More than 1,500 people are feared dead and 4,000 injured by a series of earthquakes that struck the northern Afghan province of Baghlan last night and early today.

Officials from the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) told RFE/RL that it is still too early to provide exact casualty figures because an international assessment team sent to the worst-hit areas have yet to report their findings.

But the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, says the Afghan interim head Hamid Karzai already has informed the international community of 1,800 deaths:

"Chairman Karzai has just announced that 1,800 Afghans died as a result of the earthquake last night. As I did at the beginning, I would like to offer our condolences [and] our sympathies, and we will provide assistance to the interim authority and local Afghans in dealing with this tragedy."

Yussef Hassan, the UNHCR's spokesman in Kabul, told RFE/RL today that the earthquakes have been "devastating."

"The picture that is emerging is that it appears to be a devastating earthquake that has razed or destroyed completely many villages in the Nahrin and Borkeh districts [of Baghlan Province]. There has been massive destruction. Quite a number of villages are completely destroyed and many, many people are dead."

Hassan says that each report coming out of Baghlan Province brings worse news:

"Earlier in the day, the information we had was that at least 100 people were confirmed dead and 200 houses were destroyed. We also had reports that five villages were razed to the ground -- completely razed to the ground. Since then, the details that are emerging clearly show that the damage was more intense than that."

The UNHCR's estimate early this afternoon of about 800 killed is among the most conservative. But Hassan says the numbers are likely to increase substantially in the days ahead. He notes that residents of Baghlan Province already have suffered enormously from years of war as well as from a long drought:

"This is already an area that was seriously affected by the conflict. It was an area that had been contested between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban, and in which many of the villages were destroyed. It was also an area that was badly affected by the protracted drought -- and where many of the people were forced to flee from their villages and homes. It is rather unfortunate that they have now been dealt another blow by this natural disaster. It will probably take many months or years to recover from that."

In fact, Hassan says the quake damage already has caused the UNHCR to revise its recommendations on the return of refugees to Baghlan Province:

"We are urging refugees in the neighboring countries who are planning to return back -- if they are from Baghlan -- that they should consider seriously postponing their return to the Baghlan area and Baghlan Province in particular."

Hassan says the disaster means it is likely that the UNHCR will not be able to succeed in its goal of helping the refugees who return to the region become self-sufficient:

"It is a setback in the sense that many of the refugees who had fled from this area will unfortunately not be able to return back in time to clear their land and cultivate and once again start growing crops to feed themselves. They will continue to depend on assistance from outside."

The Afghan Defense Ministry says the bodies of 600 victims already have been recovered from several villages around the provincial capital of Nahir, which is in the Hindu Kush mountains about 160 kilometers north of Kabul. Defense Ministry spokesman Jan Mir says about 90 percent of the town of Nahir also has been leveled.

Afghan Interior Minister Yunus Qanuni said this afternoon that as many as 2,000 people were killed. He says the bodies of 1,800 victims have been pulled out of the rubble so far and that many more remain buried. Regional Afghan commanders in the area say up to 2,000 people also are still missing.

Qanuni also says that more than 3,000 have been injured and as many as 30,000 have been displaced. He says coping with the tragedy is beyond the ability of the interim government, and has issued an urgent plea for help from international agencies and foreign countries.

General Khalil, a commander from a town in the area of Pul-i-Khumri, says several villages there no longer have any buildings standing. That report appears to corroborate information received by the UNHCR from local Afghan officials:

"This afternoon we spoke to our Pul-i-Khumri office and they said that a gentleman from the local authorities had come in seeking assistance. And he said that he had come from a village where 800 people were dead, injured, or missing. It was in the Nahrin district [of Baghlan Province]. That's one example of one village -- and he had walked into our office to seek assistance for that village."

The private aid organization ACTED estimates that about 10,000 people have been left homeless. That estimate is based on reports by staff members who are posted near Nahrin. They say there were some 82,000 people living in the region.

The World Food Program is sending 158 metric tons of food to the area.

In Brussels today, the European Commission said that its aid agency has started sending tents and shelter kits to the worst-hit areas. A statement from the EU executive body says its Humanitarian Aid Office also is closely monitoring the situation and is ready to mobilize more assistance if necessary.

The U.S. Geological Survey in the U.S. state of Colorado said the first quake measured 6.0 on the Richter scale. It struck at about 19:30 yesterday Kabul time and the epicenter was very close to Nahrin. The Geological Survey said another quake measuring 5.0 on the Richter scale struck the area early this morning.

Karzai reportedly is planning a visit to Baghlan Province soon. Health Minister Suhaila Sidiq and Defense Ministry General Mostapha traveled to the area today.