Afghans Struggle to Unearth 2,000 Victims of Landslide

Afghanistan declared a national day of mourning as rescue workers using shovels and other hand tools struggled to unearth bodies buried in a landslide that has become the war-torn nation’s worst natural disaster on record.

President Hamid Karzai ordered all flags to be flown at half-staff as he called for aid and financial assistance. Local officials and residents in Badakhshan province had lost hope of finding survivors after recovering only 15 bodies yesterday, according to Naweed Frotan, a spokesman for the province bordering China and Tajikistan.

At least 2,000 people are believed dead after the side of a mountain gave way, burying the village of Ab-e-Barak under 40 meters (130 feet) of mud and rocks. An additional 4,000 people have been displaced, according to Ari Gaitanis, a spokesman for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, who provided the death toll yesterday.

The 2,000 missing “are all dead by now,” said Frotan. “We’re unable to bring the bodies out. There’s no way except to abandon them there.” As many as 2,700 people may be buried, Badakhshan Governor Shah Waliullah Adeeb said yesterday. Authorities have declared the site a mass grave.

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 disaster 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 the region, where melting snow and seasonal showers make it 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.

Aid organizations are delivering rice, flour, blankets and shelter to the displaced who are now living in tents pitched in the mountainous region, Frotan said.

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