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Agencies speed aid to Afghan landslide area

Disaster may have killed 2,100 people

Local people had few tools to help them find survivors trapped under the mud in the Argo district of Badakshan province in Afghanistan on Saturday after a massive landslide buried a village on Friday, killing 350 people instantly.

Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

Local people had few tools to help them find survivors trapped under the mud in the Argo district of Badakshan province in Afghanistan on Saturday after a massive landslide buried a village on Friday, killing 350 people instantly.

KABUL — Aid groups were rushing assistance to Afghanistan’s northern province of Badakhshan on Saturday, a day after a landslide buried scores of homes under more than 30 feet of mud and possibly killed as many as 2,100 people.

The landslide struck midday Friday about 50 miles from Afghanistan’s northeastern border with Tajikistan. Officials said at least 350 people were killed instantly.

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More than 24 hours later, there were conflicting reports about how many others might still be buried under the debris.

A spokesman for the provincial governor told several media outlets Saturday that 2,100 people were missing and presumed dead.

Other provincial leaders called that figure high but said the precise tallies of dead may not be known for weeks, if ever.

With officials still worried about new landslides in the affected area, villagers frantically dug for survivors Saturday. A battalion of Afghan National Army soldiers arrived on the scene, but a senior military commander said there was little hope of finding anyone alive.

‘‘Because of the thickness of the mud, there was nothing we could do,’’ said General Zahir Azimi, a spokesman for the army.

‘It’s mountainous, rocky, and add to that muddy, narrow roads . . . it’s not an easy place to get to, especially with heavy machinery.’

Ari Gaitanis, spokesman, United Nations Mission Afghanistan 
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The landslide is the latest in a string of deadly disasters in Afghanistan, a country already struggling with terrorism, poverty, and an uncertain future as the NATO-led coalition withdraws most of its remaining forces this year.

Over the past 10 days, Afghanistan has endured severe flash flooding, an earthquake and a coal-mine explosion that killed 20 miners.

Now, Friday’s landslide threatens to become one of the country’s deadliest natural disasters in at least a decade.

The slide followed several days of heavy rain in Badakhshan’s Argo district, a remote area that includes the Hindu Kush and Pamir mountain ranges. Many of the houses are made of mud, stone, and straw and the landslide struck without warning, officials said, instantly encasing about 350 homes.

As rescuers from neighboring villages arrived on the scene, a second slide occurred, killing nearly all of the first responders, said Mohammed Zekaria, a legislator from the area.

On Saturday, assistance teams from the United Nations and the Afghan Red Crescent Society were working to set up emergency shelters and distribute food, water, and medical supplies to more than 4,000 displaced residents.

But the area is largely inaccessible by vehicle, which was complicating rescue and aid efforts.

Late Friday, provincial officials pleaded for heavy equipment, noting that villagers had little to use but their hands to dig for survivors. Ari Gaitanis, a spokesman for the United Nations Mission Afghanistan, said that request was difficult to fulfill in such a remote area.

‘‘It’s not your typical easy place to get to,’’ Gaitanis said. ‘‘It’s mountainous, rocky, and add to that muddy, narrow roads, and everything else, it’s not an easy place to get to, especially with heavy machinery.’’

President Hamid Karzai said in a statement that he has ordered ‘‘relevant entities to provide immediate assistance to people affected by this natural disaster’’ and to ‘‘urgently rescue those who are trapped under debris.’’

‘‘The president offers his heartfelt condolences and sympathies to the families of the victims and prays for patience of the bereaved and rapid recovery of the wounded,’’ the statement said.

On Friday, President Obama said the US government also stood ready to provide assistance. But a spokesman for the US-led coalition in Afghanistan said Saturday that the US military was still on ‘‘standby’’ because the Afghan National Army had not requested additional resources.

‘‘If they request support, we will provide support, but at this point they have not requested any support,’’ said Captain Keith Robinson, a spokesman for the international coalition’s northern regional command.

Even if the US military is called upon, there may be limits to what it could do because American troops have been steadily reducing their footprint in Afghanistan.

As the number of coalition bases dwindles, the range of military medevac helicopters is increasingly limited.

US soldiers generally do not operate without the availability of medical air support.

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