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Hundreds feared dead or trapped in Afghanistan landslides, governor says

By Qadir Sediqi, CNN
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Fri May 2, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Local governor fears 2,700 dead; a U.N. official says 350 killed, but toll may rise
  • NEW: There was a wedding ceremony happening at the time of landslide, governor says
  • A landslide struck a remote, mountainous area in northeast Afghanistan around noon
  • Hundreds from a nearby village came to help, then another landslide hit

(CNN) -- Hundreds of people are feared dead following deep, devastating landslides Friday in a remote, mountainous part of far northeastern Afghanistan, a provincial governor said.

A landslide crashed down around noon in an area with some 300 homes in the district of Argo in Badakhshan province, the area's governor, Shah Waliullah Adeeb, said. Citing reports from tribal elders and district council members he added that a wedding ceremony was taking place in that area at the time.

Close to 600 people from a nearby village then came to help dig people out when a new landslide struck, Adeeb said.

The provincial governor said there are 2,700 dead, an estimate based on the premise that some houses were occupied, the number of wedding attendees and those who came to help only to get buried themselves.

Yet Ari Gaitanis, a spokesman for the United Nation's Afghanistan mission, reported later Friday a smaller figure of 350 deaths. At the same time, Gaitanis acknowledged the toll could rise Saturday with search efforts underway.

The affected area isn't densely populated, according to the U.N. spokesman, who estimated about 700 families live in the village. Gaitanis said that 120 houses were destroyed.

The out-of-the-way location -- far from a major city, bordered by Tajikistan to the north and Pakistan to the south -- as well as the rocky terrain and abundant mountains makes it difficult to reach, said the U.N. official.

That said, search-and-rescue teams were able to reach the area later Friday.

But the rescue efforts are difficult with rubble 25 to 30 meters (80 to 100 feet) deep covering the ground, according to Adeeb, the governor. He noted worries that another 700 houses are in danger if there's another landslide.

The United States is "ready to help our Afghan partners as they respond to this disaster," U.S. President Obama said Friday outside the White House.

"I want to say on behalf of the American people that our thoughts are with the people of Afghanistan, who have experienced an awful tragedy," Obama said during a wide-ranging news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Badakhshan, is a sparsely populated region comprising a majority Tajik population and an Uzbek and Kyrgyz minority. It was the only province that was not controlled by the Taliban when it ruled Afghanistan.

CNN's Greg Botelho, Jason Hanna and Aliza Kassim contributed to this report.

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