Soldiers dug hundreds of bodies from flattened homes in remote northern Afghanistan on Sunday, and aid workers flew in supplies for an emergency medical clinic to help survivors of an earthquake that killed at least 2,500 people and injured 2,000.
Saturday's magnitude-6.9 quake erased entire villages, sliced into mountains and triggered landslides. Some local officials said the death toll was as high as 5,000. Among those killed were 140 schoolchildren in Rostaq."We need help desperately. Thousands of people are dead," a spokesman for a northern alliance fighting Afghanistan's Taliban government said from the stricken area, near the border with Tajikistan.
Opposition soldiers already had recovered 1,650 bodies, Shamshul Haq Arianfar said.
United Nations officials flew over some of the most desolate and hardest-hit regions Sunday, setting down briefly near the quake's epicenter in Shari Basurkh, about 30 miles from the Badakhshan provincial capital of Faisabad.
They delivered tents and plastic sheeting as well as materials for an emergency clinic to be set up in Shari Basurkh for the many wounded.
Saturday's quake was centered not far from the site where a temblor in February killed 2,300 people and left another 8,000 homeless. Alfredo Witschi-Cestari, head of the U.N.'s humanitarian aid office in neighboring Pakistan, said the latest quake was the more devastating of the two: While the first struck a region with about 30,000 people, the second affected a hilly, rugged area that is home to about twice that population.
The area's sun-baked mud homes, already weakened by the February temblor, crumbled like dry dust in Saturday's violent shaking. The homes had been made more vulnerable by the relentless rain that battered the region in recent days.
Witschi-Cestari's helicopter swooped in low over several villages Sunday, opening a view onto horrific scenes. Hundreds of homes were shattered and completely flattened. U.N. officials said 4,100 houses were destroyed.
U.N. officials estimated that at least 2,500 people died.
Hedge Kvam, spokesman for the Red Cross in Geneva, said organization officials in neighboring Tajikistan were told by the Afghan ambassador that 5,000 people were killed. The Red Cross said it was not able to confirm the figure.
According to the report, the dead included 3,000 killed in Shari Basurkh, almost 1,900 in a settlement on the outskirts of Faisabad, the 140 schoolchildren in Rostaq and 124 people in Chaib, on Afghanistan's border with Tajikistan.
Kvam said the Afghanistan Red Crescent Society, which has offices throughout the earthquake region, has reported it has been able to confirm at least 1,500 dead.
Arianfar, the spokesman from the anti-Taliban alliance, speaking from Chaib, described images of utter devastation. Eight villages simply disintegrated, he said.
Tons of food, blankets, tents and plastic sheeting were to be loaded onto cargo helicopters today in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad and were to be sent to the mountain capital of Faisabad. From there, the supplies will be for-warded to the areas that suffered the greatest damage.
The International Red Cross got one plane into Faisabad on Sunday and was preparing to set up a clinic in the area.
By late Sunday, the weather in Faisabad had turned cloudy and cold, and aid workers feared it could become difficult to ferry supplies into the region.
Witschi-Cestari told reporters that the aid workers had learned lessons from the February quake, when they had been skeptical about the extent of the devastation, and had been slow to respond.
"We are at a level (today) where we were last (February) after one week," he said.
The United Nations still has about $1.2 million in its emergency fund left over from a massive response to the appeal following February's earthquake.