KABUL, Afghanistan -- At least 2,000 people were killed by landslides in northeastern Afghanistan in the worst natural disaster on record for the war-torn nation, an UN official said.
The accident site in Badakhshan province has been declared a mass grave after the village of Ab-e-Barak was buried under 130 feet of mud and rocks, said Governor Shah Waliullah Adeeb. An additional 4,000 people have been displaced or relocated from villages at risk, according to Ari Gaitanis, a spokesman for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. Gaitanis provided the latest death toll today.
Afghanistan, with a population of about 31 million, is one of the poorest countries in Asia, weakened by decades of warfare and ethnic rivalries. The accident comes as the nation prepares for its first democratic transfer of power since the U.S. ousted the Taliban in 2001. Results of the first round of elections are due May 14.
The landslides were triggered by heavy rains in Badakhshan province bordering Tajikistan, where melting snow and seasonal showers make the region vulnerable to such calamities. The toll is more than double that of the worst natural disaster recorded in Afghanistan in May 1991 when floods killed 728 people, according to the international emergency disaster database of the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters.
Hundreds of volunteers were at the scene trying to dig out victims using shovels and other hand tools, according to Adeeb.
“We have no modern machinery,” he said. “It takes months to finish the work by using shovels.” As many as 2,700 people may be buried there, Adeeb said.
President Hamid Karzai sent rescue teams, and hundreds of tons of flour, rice and sugar arrived in the affected area, Wais Barmak, minister of rural rehabilitation and development, said by phone.
“Just as the United States has stood with the people of Afghanistan through a difficult decade, we stand ready to help our Afghan partners as they respond to this disaster,” U.S. President Barack Obama said yesterday before a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the White House. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh offered help for rescue, relief and rehabilitation, according to a statement today.
Heavy rainfall caused floods in Afghanistan’s northern provinces killing more than 100 people last week. More Afghans have been killed through natural disasters in the past seven days than in all of 2013, according to Mark Bowden, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Afghanistan.
Authorities evacuated nearby settlements following the disaster, which occurred around 1 p.m. local time yesterday. A number of rescuers who had rushed from adjacent villages were also reported to be killed in subsequent slides, Gaitanis said.