MAZAR-I-SHARIF: Landslides buried a village in northern Afghanistan on Friday, killing at least 350 people and leaving thousands of others feared dead, as rescuers searched desperately for survivors trapped under the mud.
Villagers at the disaster site in Badakhshan province used shovels to dig through rocks and dirt, with local authorities, the United Nations and the NATO military force all racing to assess the damage and provide help.
"Two successive landslides within one hour hit Aab Bareek village today," Gul Mohammad Baidaar, deputy governor of Badakhshan, told AFP.
"A hill collapsed on the village. Most of those missing had gathered in two mosques to offer Friday prayers. The second landslide hit locals who came to help."
Badakhshan governor Shah Waliullah Adeeb told AFP by telephone that the death toll be as high as 2,500.
"Our initial findings based on local people's reports show around 2,500 people including women and children might be dead," he said.
"It is difficult to get confirmed information from the scene and we are seeking to determine the facts."
Badakhshan is a remote, mountainous province in northeast Afghanistan bordering Tajikistan, China and Pakistan.
It has been relatively peaceful since the US-led military intervention began in 2001, but has seen increasing Taliban activity in recent years,
"The number of deceased has increased to 350," the UN mission in Afghanistan said in a statement.
"A response is being mobilised for those who survived but were displaced, with some partners already on the ground.
"(NATO's) Regional Command in the north (is) in contact with the Afghan National Army in regards to search and rescue efforts."
President Hamid Karzai said immediate action was being taken, with rescuing survivors the priority for emergency efforts, which continued as darkness fell.
Local officials said that the landslides occurred at about midday (0730 GMT) in the Argo district after days of heavy rain.
Between 350 and 400 houses were destroyed, they said.
"It is a disaster. The landslide has affected around 1,000 families," Sayed Abdullah Homayun Dehqan, provincial director of the Afghan National Disaster Management Authority, told AFP.
"Around 300 families are missing, that could involve around 2,000 people. People are working to remove the rocks, so far three bodies have been recovered.
"Around 700 families were rescued, we have sent in some basic assistance such as tents and blankets."
US President Barack Obama also expressed his condolences over the disaster, saying "our thoughts are with the people of Afghanistan who have experienced an awful tragedy."
"We stand ready to help our Afghan partners as they respond to this disaster," Obama said at a press conference in Washington with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The UN said that it was helping to coordinate local authorities to rescue survivors, but that road access to the area could not take heavy machinery.
The disaster follows recent severe flooding in other parts of northern Afghanistan, with 150 people dead and 67,000 people affected by floods in Jowzjan, Faryab and Sar-e-Pul provinces.
Nearly 3,500 houses were damaged and destroyed by the floods, creating an urgent need for shelter, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said on Thursday.
It said clean water, medical supplies, food and shelter were needed immediately as relief efforts were stepped up.
The floodwaters swept through villages, engulfing thousands of homes and leaving many people seeking safety on the roofs of their mud-brick houses.
The floods destroyed farmland and also killed livestock across the remote region.
Flooding and landslides often occur during the spring rainy season in northern Afghanistan, with flimsy mud houses offering little protection against rising water levels and torrents of mud.
In the last major flooding in Afghanistan, 40 people died in August in flash floods in eastern and southeastern provinces and some districts of the capital Kabul.
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