Relief Effort Hampered for Afghanistan Quake Victims


The suffering and desperation of Afghanistan's earthquake survivors only grew Friday, when more heavy rain grounded helicopters that were to fly in food and fly out the worst injured.

The blustery weather was one more setback for the problem-plagued international aid effort for victims of the May 30 quake, estimated to have killed as many as 5,000 and injured thousands more.

The death toll was likely to climb as aid workers struggle to reach dozens of devastated towns. In villages already visited by aid workers, depleted food stocks and lack of potable water were deepening survivors' misery.

Of the thousands believed injured, just 96 have been evacuated for treatment. More than 100 villages are estimated to have been damaged by the 6.9-magnitude quake, and six days after the disaster, most have yet to see a U.N. or Red Cross helicopter land.

Landslides and rains are blocking roads, leaving most of the affected villages accessible only by air. With just three of the aircraft at their disposal, aid agencies are torn between competing needs: ferrying the most severely injured to hospitals, locating more victims and distributing flour and oil to exhausted, hungry villagers.

Compounding the relief effort's problems has been a severe fuel shortage. Until Thursday, when a U.N. plane delivered more than 1,000 gallons of fuel to aid headquarters in Dushanbe in neighboring Tajikistan, the number of sorties the helicopter fleet could fly was limited.

On Thursday, they delivered flour and oil to only a dozen villages before returning to their base in neighboring Tajikistan. Rainstorms on Friday grounded the copters altogether.

Aid workers visited 12 quake-damaged villages on Thursday, reporting later that survivors were hungry and growing increasingly desperate. The villagers pleaded for more food, water and material for shelter, the workers said.

At the Faisabad airstrip, the center of relief operations, workers struggled in the rain to anchor rugs and plastic over flour sacks stacked at each end of the runway, awaiting distribution.

As emergency aid converged on the region, the International Committee of the Red Cross suggested that Israel remove identifying tags from an aid shipment to avoid distribution problems in the Islamic country, a spokeswoman for the group said in Jerusalem.

Israel plans to send 15 tons of tents, blankets, food and medicine to earthquake victims on Sunday. Foreign Ministry spokesman Aviv Shiron said a decision had not yet been made on whether to comply with the ICRC's advice.

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