More than 2,000 feared dead in Afghan landslides

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KABUL, Afghanistan -- A day after landslides buried much of a village in mountainous northeastern Afghanistan, local officials said Saturday they feared that more than 2,000 people were dead, entombed in a blanket of earth nearly 30 feet deep.

Officials are expected to designate the site, in the remote village of Abi Barak in Badakhshan province, a mass grave.

"There is no hope for those buried under the mud to be rescued," said Mohammad Zikeria Sawda, a member of Parliament from Badakhshan, who visited the area Saturday.

President Hamid Karzai declared today a national day of mourning and ordered all flags flown at half-staff. He also asked that Afghans and aid groups come to the assistance of those affected by the landslides, calling the episode a "human tragedy."

On Friday, the United Nations said that the death toll was at least 350. But a day after the initial landslides the exact number of dead remained unknown. Whole portions of Abi Barak have been buried by landslides, freezing entire families in place beneath the earth and debris and thwarting efforts to claw people out. It appeared that almost half of the mountain had simply fallen on top of Abi Barak.

"It is very difficult for rescue teams to operate and take out the bodies from the mud," said Gul Ahmad Bedar, the deputy governor of Badakhshan. "Even the advance machinery cannot operate usefully in taking out the bodies from some of the areas."

The possibility that yet another chunk of earth might cleave from the nearby mountain kept rescue workers on high alert.

The fear was not idle. Among the houses buried beneath the mud on Friday was one where a young couple had just been married, local officials told television news stations. When neighbors rushed to help, a second landslide trapped them as well.

Thousands of area residents have been evacuated from their homes. Aid agencies were mobilizing assistance Saturday, with U.N. staff members coordinating the distribution of food, water and blankets and arranging for emergency shelter.

Officials said about 500 villagers from the surrounding area were handed shovels and pickaxes to work alongside soldiers and others to unearth the bodies.

A shipment of 60 tons of food arrived Saturday from neighboring Kunduz province. A delegation of Afghan officials also flew to the affected region Saturday. Along with tents, the delegation delivered blankets and cash -- up to $1,000 for each dead family member, officials said.

Afghanistan's second vice president, Karim Khalili, expressed deep condolences at the site of the disaster and promised that the government would continue to do all it could to assist the survivors. He said 230 tons of wheat and flour had been delivered by the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development.

The commander of the International Security Assistance Force, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., offered his condolences on behalf of the international coalition and said his troops were ready to offer assistance if requested by Afghan authorities.

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