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Aid Reaching Afghan Earthquake Victims - 2002-03-27

Relief efforts are under way in northern Afghanistan, where a powerful earthquake has caused considerable damage. However, the casualty toll remains uncertain.

Victims of the earthquake began the sorrowful task of burying their dead relatives and friends Wednesday, while aid agencies scrambled to help those still alive.

A team of soldiers from the Kabul-based international peacekeeping force flew by helicopter into Baghlan Province, Tuesday night, to assess the extent of death and destruction wrought by Monday's earthquake.

Interim government Chairman Hamid Karzai flew to the affected area, Wednesday, and pledged to bring in international aid to help the victims.

The earthquake struck Monday evening, with aftershocks continuing for several hours. The quake, which measured 6 on the open-ended Richter scale, was not as powerful as one that struck the neighboring province, Samangan, March 3. However, seismologists say this one was much closer to the surface, making its effects far more lethal.

Flight Lieutenant Tony Marshall, of the international security force says Nahrin - a town that housed some 10,000 people - took the brunt of the damage. "What we do know is that the city of Nahrin - it actually has two distinct parts, the old quarter and the new quarter - initial reports are that 90 percent of the old quarter is actually laid waste," he said. "So, obviously, the devastation has been significant. So we're talking half the city actually lies in ruins today."

Surrounding villages also suffered severe damage.

The overall casualty and damage toll is still be assessed. Initial reports had the death toll up to 2,000 or more. Mr. Karzai said 1,000 people had been killed. But officials of the United Nations, which is coordinating the relief effort, say it is probably less than that.

Flight Lieutenant Marshall it is impossible right now to know, for sure, how many people perished. "We're a little over 24 hours since the earthquake, and I'm sure accurate figures are still hard to come by," he said. "And, it will only be when the bodies have been removed from the rubble will we only know then how great this disaster has been."

Food, blankets, and tents were rushed to Baghlan by any means possible. Rough roads make air transport the fastest and most-reliable means to get help to the remote area. However, one aid convoy set out by road from Kabul Wednesday morning to try to make it through.

U.N. officials say the rapid response was possible because aid agencies and humanitarian organizations are already on the ground in Afghanistan to help the country after the ouster of the Taleban.