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Afghanistan: Focus Shifts From Security To Earthquake Relief

The focus of international efforts in Afghanistan has shifted from security operations to disaster relief, after earthquakes this week killed hundreds in the northern province of Baghlan. Interim government leader Hamid Karzai backed away today from his initial estimate of 1,800 killed -- but it is also clear that the number of people made homeless is larger than initially thought.

Prague, 27 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The death toll from a series of earthquakes that struck Afghanistan this week was revised downward today by interim administration leader Hamid Karzai after he arrived in the worst-hit part of the country -- the northern province of Baghlan.

But independent reports also suggest the number of people made homeless by the quakes is higher than originally estimated -- re-emphasizing the urgency of relief efforts.

Karzai said after arriving today in the devastated town of Nahrin in the foothills of the Hindu Kush mountains that he now thinks about 1,000 people were killed. That figure is down substantially from estimates released by his office yesterday of 1,800 dead. An even higher estimate was made yesterday by interim Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah as he appealed for international help in Brussels during a forum of the European Parliament.

"It has taken the lives of well over 4,000 people and that number is expected to rise. And so, once again, in this forum, I make an appeal, an international appeal for assistance to the people of Afghanistan in the wake of a tragedy -- a calamity of such a dimension."

Reena Ghelani, a representative of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said today that an on-site investigation of 42 villages in the disaster area shows the death toll is probably less than 800.

Nevertheless, the UN says massive damage to buildings in Baghlan Province will place an enormous burden on villagers already struggling to recover from years of war in which their homes were on the front lines.

Western estimates on those left homeless by the quake have risen from 10,000 to 30,000 since yesterday. Yusuf Hassan, a spokesman for the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, described what an assessment team had found during the last 24 hours.

"Well, our colleagues who arrived [in the earthquake area] yesterday have been able to go through to some of the villages. Many of the villages that they have seen so far have been destroyed, maybe up to 80 percent of the [buildings in the] villages [they saw were] damaged, a lot of injuries, [some] dead."

Stephanie Bunker, the UN coordinator on humanitarian affairs in Afghanistan, provided additional details to RFE/RL today: "There are three affected areas. One of them is Nahrin. One of them is a place called Borkeh. And the other place is called Jirga. Basically, what's happened right now is that Nahrin seems to be heavily destroyed. Assessments are going on. They went on yesterday. They are continuing today. Today, there is going to be an attempt to assess the other areas that we haven't been to yet."

Bunker says the main focus of the relief operations is to provide survivors with emergency shelter, food and medical help: "Aid is on the way. A thousand tents have been sent in. Food has been sent in and some other non-food items like blankets are being sent in. There are also clinics that are being set up in the area by MSF (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders)."

Bunker also suggested that at least 15,000 families are thought to be homeless as a result of the quakes.

"The initial estimates were that maybe 7,000 families would need help. And as the assessments have proceeded, the estimates of people needing help have risen and it is now believed that maybe up to 15,000 families may need help or may have been affected in some way by this earthquake."

In addition to relief aid from international institutions, foreign governments also are promising to send help.

Japan -- which is coordinating much of the post-Taliban international reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan -- announced a $400,000 aid package today to help the earthquake victims. A mission from Japan's Foreign Ministry and the Japan International Cooperation Agency also plans to leave for Afghanistan as early as tomorrow to study the disaster area.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States already has sufficient supplies in Afghanistan to offer immediate help to people in the earthquake zone. Boucher says U.S. relief workers are assessing the needs of the region today.

A 12-member team from ISAF -- the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul -- also has arrived in the disaster area to assess emergency needs.

Russia's Emergency Situations Ministry has sent in 15 tons of food, a mobile hospital with surgeons and medics, medicine, blankets, and other supplies. One Russian cargo plane that left Moscow last night also was carrying water purification devices and filters.

The French aid group ACTED already has distributed half of the 1,000 tents and 2,000 blankets it had immediately available. That organization says it also plans to send in another 1,500 tents and 1,500 portable shelter kits.

The World Food Program is delivering some 175 tons of food. Both the United Nations and the European Commission also are rushing in aid.

Bunker said officials are trying to coordinate the distribution of relief supplies across the difficult mountain terrain so that traffic into Baghlan Province can arrive from both the north and the south, as well as from neighboring Pakistan.

"Some aid is going out of Kabul [to the south]. Some aid is going to be coming out of Peshawar. Right now, Mazar-i-Sharif is going to be the [central distribution point] and some of the aid is going in by helicopter, actually, into Nahrin from Mazar."

Guy Willoughby, director of the British de-mining group HALO Trust, says traffic delays also are being caused by antitank mines that line the roads leading to Baghlan Province. The main roads have been cleared, but it is still dangerous for vehicles to drive even one meter off the road surface.

Traffic from Kabul to the quake zone slowed to a crawl yesterday after two trucks overturned inside the Salang Tunnel. The tunnel is the main ground route across the Hindu Kush mountains. It links Baghlan Province to Kabul and southern Afghanistan -- including Jalalabad Road, which is used by aid convoys coming from Peshawar.