Poorly equipped Afghan rescuers search for more than 2,000 buried in landslide

Afghan villagers gather at the site of a landslide at the Argo district in Badakhshan province on May 2, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Afghan villagers gather at the site of a landslide at the Argo district in Badakhshan province on May 2, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

KABUL (REUTERS) - Afghan police and villagers, equipped with only basic digging tools, began a dangerous search for more than 2,000 people feared buried under a massive landslide in a remote mountainous region in the northeast on Saturday, amid concern that the unstable hillside may cave in again.

The United Nations said at least 350 people were killed, but officials fear that the toll will rise sharply as the poor village in Badakhshan province, bordering Tajikistan, is buried in up to 100 metres of mud.

Villagers and a few dozen police started the search when daylight broke on Saturday.

"People from surrounding districts of Badakhshan and Takhar have rushed to the area to help with the rescue," Colonel Abdul Qadeer Sayad, a deputy police chief of Badakhshan, told Reuters. "So far today no bodies have been recovered."

Hundreds of mud brick homes were destroyed on Friday when two landslides, triggered by torrential rain, smashed into the Argo district village. There is fear another section of the mountainside could collapse as rescuers try to reach those under the mud.

The Afghan military flew rescue teams to the area on Saturday, as the remote mountain region is served by only narrow, poor roads which have themselves been damaged by more than a week of heavy rain.

"We have managed to get one excavator into the area, but digging looks helpless," said Col Sayad. "It is impossible to find signs of living creatures or houses in most parts of the affected area."

He said the sheer size of the area affected, and the depth of the mud, meant only modern machinery would help in the rescue.

Nato-led coalition troops are on standby to assist but said on Saturday that the Afghan government had not asked for help.

Hundreds of people camped out overnight in near freezing conditions, although some were provided tents. Officials distributed food and water. At least 100 people were being treated for injuries, mostly by medics who set up makeshift facilities in a stable building.

Triggered by heavy rain, the side of a mountain collapsed into the village at around 11 am (0630 GMT) on Friday as people were trying to recover their belongings and livestock after a smaller landslip hit their homes a few hours earlier.

Mr Naweed Forotan, a spokesman for the Badakhshan provincial governor, said more than 1,000 families were living in the village. "A total of 2,100 people - men, women and children - are trapped," he said.

Rescue efforts have been hampered by difficult conditions due to the rain. Seasonal rains and spring snow melt have caused heavy destruction across large swathes of northern Afghanistan, killing more than 100 people.

US President Barack Obama said American forces were on standby to help. "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, for even as our war there comes to an end this year, our commitment to Afghanistan and its people will endure," he said.

About 30,000 US soldiers remain in Afghanistan, although that number is falling as Washington prepares to withdraw by the end of this year all combat troops who battled Taleban insurgents. Police said they had provided a security ring around the area, which has been relatively free of insurgent attacks. The Taleban said in a statement they were also willing to provide security.