Pakistan

PAKISTAN: Landslide in northwest kills 20, displaces 1,500

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GILGIT, 5 January 2010 (IRIN) - At least 20 people have been killed and many others are missing after a 4 January landslide dumped around 40 houses in northwestern Pakistan into a fast-flowing river.

"It was a terrifying thing to see. The houses slid down and took many people with them," Ameer Mehdi, a local resident, told IRIN. "I pulled my children out of our house and my family fled up the crumbling hillside to escape."

The tragedy happened in the small village of Attabad, on the banks of the Hunza river in Gilgit-Baltistan, which is bordered by Afghanistan to the north and Pakistan-administered Kashmir to the south.

"The debris of the houses has obstructed the flow of water," said deputy commissioner Asad Zamin, warning that this could "trigger flooding downstream". He has ordered the evacuation of around 1,500 people living in low-lying villages. "This is essential to avoid further loss of life," he said.

"Rescue and relief activities are being carried out with the help of local volunteers," Usman Younis, director-general of the government's Disaster Management Authority for Gilgt-Baltistan, told IRIN. "The death toll cannot yet be confirmed."

No preventative action

Locals in the Hunza administrative unit of Gilgit say the disaster could have been avoided if remedial action had been taken earlier.

"There are about 100 houses in Attabad. Many of these and other houses in this area had developed cracks after a landslide three years ago," local resident Salim Ullah, 40, told IRIN. He said hillsides in the area had become unstable after a powerful earthquake there in 2002. Despite concerns raised by villagers, he said nothing had been done to make their lives safer.

Villagers say a number of bodies remain in the debris or have not yet been recovered from the river.

Chinese engineers to the rescue

"The rescuers lack proper equipment so people could not be saved. It was basically just people working to help each other," villager Qasim Ali said. Rescue teams, including Chinese engineers, began work on 5 January.

Wazir Baig, speaker in the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly, said medical teams were being rushed to the area.

Maryum Bibi, 30, whose infant daughter was injured in the landslide, said: "There are many injured children. The scenes at hospitals of women and children wailing are terrible." She said her house had been badly damaged and she and her husband in Attabad did not know if they would get any help.

Temperatures in the area are currently below freezing.

The landslide also damaged a two-kilometre stretch of the Karakoram Highway, disrupting traffic and hampering access to the area.

The Gilgit-Baltistan region is controlled for administrative purposes by Pakistan and has historically formed a part of Kashmir territory.

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