New tremors split mountain roads and crumbled villages in remote northeastern Afghanistan on Saturday, worsening the lot of survivors of a devastating quake and the aid workers trying to reach them. Another 150 deaths were reported in Saturday’s shaking.
Aid agencies say between 2,150 and 4,450 people died in Wednesday’s magnitude-6.1 quake, which set off landslides that buried many in their rugged hillside villages.
Saturday’s jolts failed to register at the U.S. Geological Survey in Golden, Colo., indicating the latest tremors were below 4.5 in magnitude - but still strong enough to block relief routes and claim new victims.
“And now we may only be able to reach the survivors by helicopter,” said Sayed Ali Javed, leader of a team coordinating relief efforts in the isolated Rustaq district of Takhar province, nestled between the Hindu Kush and Pamir mountain ranges.
Reports of Wednesday’s quake reached the Afghan capital of Kabul, 150 miles to the south, only on Friday evening. Details were still sketchy Saturday.
Officials with the military alliance that controls the poor farming area said as many as 15,000 families were left homeless. Whole hillsides collapsed onto each other, crushing thousands of mud and brick homes perched on the slopes.
Sher Mohammed, a spokesman for the alliance, said soldiers digging through the rubble found 450 bodies Saturday, raising his death toll estimate to nearly 4,500.
“Our troops are helping the people of the region, but it is taking a long time and there may be more bodies and injured people still trapped,” he said by satellite telephone.
Afghanistan’s ambassador to neighboring Tajikistan, Abdul Rakhim, told Associated Press Television that 11 villages were destroyed by the quake, and 2,930 houses were leveled. He said that rescuers have recovered 3,681 bodies.
Aid workers are skeptical about the high figures given by the alliance, noting that the area was sparsely populated and that Afghan officials have exaggerated natural disasters in the past.
Juan Martinez, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Kabul, said local aid workers had counted 2,150 bodies pulled from the rubble. That figure is expected to climb as the digging continues, he said.
Many fear others will die from the bitterly cold weather unless aid agencies can reach the area with blankets, fuel and plastic sheeting.
“The cold must be the major killer now,” said Andrew Wilder, who directs the Save the Children program in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.
Javed said physicians from Doctors Without Borders, the first foreign aid agency to reach the region, already treated 367 people.
U.N. and Red Cross officials in Pakistan said they have sufficient emergency food, medical and temporary housing supplies in the general region. But getting it to the remote area, ringed by mountains and blanketed in snow, will be difficult.