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Strong Earthquake Strikes Afghanistan - 2002-03-26

A major earthquake has struck northern Afghanistan, killing about 2,000 people, injuring 2,000 more, and leaving villages in ruins. The death toll could continue to rise.

The earthquake left a wake of destruction late Monday when it struck the remote province of Baghlan. The town of Nahrin, which took the brunt of the devastating earthquake, is reported to have been leveled, and at least four other villages were also destroyed.

Houses collapsed from the quake, which measured 5.8 on the open-ended Richter scale. The quake continued to deliver debilitating aftershocks for several hours.

Seismologists report the epicenter was about 120 kilometers north of Kabul. The quake was felt in the Afghan capital, but only briefly, and no damage was reported.

Colonel Neal Peckham, a spokesman for the Kabul-based international peacekeeping force, said there was apparently a series of shocks. He said the casualty toll is expected to fluctuate as more accurate information comes in.

"I understand there have been a sequence of three shocks overnight, three separate quakes that have occurred through the night," he said. "So, you know, the initial reports are pretty wild, I am sure."

Agencies immediately began mobilizing aid for victims in the stricken area. The region is difficult to reach even in good conditions, and given the poor state of communications in Afghanistan and the lack of sophisticated equipment to search the rubble, it may be days before a true casualty toll is known.

The Kabul-based peacekeepers of the International Security Assistance Force have jumped in to lend assistance by providing a survey team and air transport to the stricken area. Colonel Peckham says that although the force's mandate does not extend beyond Kabul, humanitarian considerations override political ones.

"We are prepared to provide humanitarian help where there is a risk to life," he said. "That is a standard humanitarian response. It is well outside our mission, but in that sort of need, we will assist wherever we can, especially as we have a capability that may be able to assist."

Interim government chairman Hamid Karzai cancelled a planned trip to Turkey and plans to visit the stricken area.

The region is prone to earthquakes. Seventy people died in a March 3 quake in Sanmangan province, northwest of Baghlan. That earthquake measured 6.7 on the Richter scale. But seismologists say the latest quake was closer to the ground surface, which is why it caused more damage.