'Jet engine' sound, tremors send Afghan villagers fleeing deadly landslide

Usman SHARIFI
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At least 10 people were killed by the landslide in Afghanistan's mountainous Panjshir province

As the ground shook and a sound like a "jet engine" rumbled through the valley, villagers in remote northeastern Afghanistan ran for their lives, minutes before a landslide buried their homes under tonnes of mud and water.

At least 10 people were killed when the landslide struck several villages in Panjshir, a mountainous province north of Kabul, in the early hours of Thursday, destroying hundreds of houses, shops, mosques and cars.

Most people appear to have had enough time to escape to higher ground after they were roused from their sleep by warning gunshots fired into the air after the landslide triggered quake-like tremors as it roared down the mountain.

Melting snow in the surrounding mountains had flooded a lake, sending water and mud cascading over villages below, the disaster management ministry and local officials said.

AFP went to the site of three villages that were largely buried under mud and boulders.

"I was sitting in my mosque... and then I felt the ground shaking under my feet and the sound of the river becoming louder and louder," Mullah Sharif told AFP.

Sharif had enough time to escape before his mosque disappeared under large rocks and mud.

Haji Sayeed Farid was staying in a nearby village when he heard gunshots around midnight, signalling something was wrong.

"People were saying that the next village had been flooded, there was water everywhere and I couldn't see anything," Farid told AFP as he searched for his wife and a female relative who are missing, their home buried in mud.

Haji Shir Ahmad said he received a phone call from a friend which saved him and his family.

"I could hear gunshots and a roaring sound in the distance, but I was not sure what was happening," he said.

"Then I got a call from a friend who was screaming over the phone 'Get out, get out, a flood is coming!'"

Seven bodies have been recovered so far and another three are still trapped beneath mud, Omar Mohammadi, a spokesman for the disaster management ministry, told AFP.

Around 500 houses in five villages have been damaged or destroyed, Mohammadi added.

- More flooding feared -

Excavating machines were deployed to help clear roads as authorities dispatched emergency supplies of food, water, blankets and tents to villagers who had fled to higher ground.

But AFP saw few signs of search and rescue efforts despite authorities vowing to deploy teams to the area which has escaped much of the violence in Afghanistan's nearly 17-year war.

Panjshir authorities said earlier that at least 10 villages had been "badly affected" with hundreds of homes, shops and cars destroyed.

The torrent of water and mud had caused the usually turquoise-coloured Panjshir River, which snakes through the valley, to burst its banks and turn into a muddy expanse.

Jamil Ahmad was lying in bed when he said he heard a sound like "jets" flying overhead.

"Somebody shouted 'Flood!' and I ran away with my family to higher ground," Ahmad told AFP.

"The people started firing (weapons) into the air to warn others about the flood."

The water and mud had inundated most of the houses in his village, and destroyed a religious school, two mosques and the main market, Ahmad said.

"Three women from my neighbourhood and two labourers who didn't hear the warning were taken away by the flood," Ahmad said.

Some families could be seen sitting on higher ground overlooking what had been their homes. Many appeared to have escaped with just the clothes they were wearing.

Villagers had been worried about the possibility of landslides after several days of increasingly warm weather, Ahmad said.

Disasters such as avalanches and flash floods often hit in mountainous areas of Afghanistan as snow melts in the spring and summer. The problem is made worse by deforestation.

Abdul Aziz was able to retrieve a few possessions from his damaged home before taking his wife and five children to safety.

"I fear there will be more flooding," he said.

Deputy director of the disaster management ministry Mohammad Qasim Haidari said earlier that about 10 people were missing, but it is not clear if they are among the dead.

President Ashraf Ghani, who is in Brussels for the NATO summit, said he was "deeply saddened" by the latest natural disaster.

"A number of people have lost their lives" in the landslide, he said in a statement.

Ghani ordered "relevant authorities to provide urgent assistance to the affected people".