Fresh Aftershocks Kill More
In Afghan Quake Zone

By Sayed Salahuddin and
Brian Williams

KABUL (Reuters) - The projected death toll in a series of devastating earthquakes in northern Afghanistan rose sharply from 2,000 Wednesday as fresh aftershocks hit the area and the scale of the disaster became clearer.
The aftershocks from the initial quakes, which struck on Monday night and Tuesday morning, added danger to relief attempts already rendered hugely difficult by blocked roads.
Government officials said Tuesday around 2,000 people had been killed and thousands injured in the initial quakes, which flattened the market town of Nahrin and surrounding villages. "Casualties have mounted dramatically after new aftershocks early this morning," Defense Ministry spokesman Gulbuddin told Reuters Wednesday.
"We think the death toll is now far more than 2,000 and is going to go up dramatically as we dig through rubble in Nahrin and reach outlying villages," he said.
"There have been many new casualties in Burkah, 20 km (12 miles) north of Nahrin," he added. "So far no substantial aid has reached the area because of destroyed roads."
Interim leader Hamid Karzai was to visit Nahrin on Wednesday. "He wants to see the situation first hand and speak to the people," his spokesman said.
What he will see, in the words of U.N. spokesman Yusuf Hassan, is "utter devastation."
"It is impossible to get to many villages north of Nahrin because roads are blocked by massive landslides," he said.
"On the southern side of Nahrin three villages leading to it are 80 percent destroyed," he added.
"Aftershocks are still continuing. They are very dangerous," Hassan quoted a U.N. team on the spot as saying.
The initial quakes devastated Nahrin, a district capital of mud-brick buildings with a population of 10,000 very near the epicenter of the quakes in the rugged Hindu Kush mountains. The district has a population of around 80,000.
Statistics on the U.S. Geological Survey quake bulletin Web site (http://earthquake.usgs suggested the quakes were relatively shallow, making their impact on the surface all the more severe.
"The tens of thousands who have fled their homes have settled in deserts and hills in the open air without food, shelter or water," Gulbuddin said. "It is desperate."
The interim government has appealed for international help and met United Nations officials, aid agencies and international peacekeepers Wednesday to coordinate their response.
"It is beyond the interim government to deal with this tragedy," Interior Minister Yunus Qanuni told Reuters on Tuesday. Although U.N. aid agencies have rushed thousands of blankets and tents, as well as food and clothes, to the area, the blocked roads and difficult mountain conditions mean a colossal task for rescue and relief workers.
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said two of the three roads into the immediate area were blocked.
Traffic from Kabul to the quake-hit zone also slowed to a crawl Tuesday after two trucks overturned in the high-altitude Salang Tunnel.
To make matters worse, experts said roads into the area had been heavily mined during years conflict between the opposition Northern Alliance and the Taliban.
"There are a lot of anti-tank mines on the roads into Nahrin," Guy Willoughby, director of the HALO Trust demining group, told Reuters.
"The town was on the front lines between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban, and the Northern Alliance laid a lot of anti-tank mines on the roads to stop them taking the town."
The earthquake disaster was the second to hit northern Afghanistan this month. More than 100 people were killed by a landslide in a remote village in Samangan province on March 3 by the previous quake.
Afghanistan is struggling with the impact of a long drought, insecurity and the aftermath of fighting between U.S.-led forces and the former Taliban rulers.
The U.S. Geological Survey in Colorado said the first shock, 6.0 on the Richter scale, struck at 7:26 p.m. Monday and the epicenter was very close to Nahrin.
It was felt in Mazar-i-Sharif, 200 km (120 miles) northwest of Nahrin and in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.
Another quake at 2:15 a.m. Tuesday measured 5.0 on the Richter scale, USGS said.
The British-led International Security Assistance Force of peacekeepers sent an assessment team to the earthquake area and the Pentagon said it was considering what it could do.
But at Bagram air base, command center just north of Kabul for U.S. troops fighting in Afghanistan, the military said it had few resources spare to help the aid effort, although a team would help try and unblock the Salang tunnel.
"We are looking at the earthquake, but I would tell you that we are a very, very purposefully lean combat headquarters," Major Bryan Hilferty said.
"We came over here with very little equipment and very few people -- just enough to do the job which is find, capture or kill the al-Qaeda terrorists. We don't have a lot of extra stuff to help."
The United States has about 6,000 troops hunting al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and a large number of aircraft in the region.
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