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Afghan leader tries to calm landslide victims amid aid tensions

Afghan President Hamid Karzai (C) arrives at the site of a deadly landslide in the Argo district of Badakhshan province May 7, 2014. REUTERS
Afghan President Hamid Karzai (C) arrives at the site of a deadly landslide in the Argo district of Badakhshan province May 7, 2014. REUTERS

By Mirwais Harooni

AAB BAREEK, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai visited a refugee camp for victims of a deadly landslide on Wednesday, trying to calm villagers angered by the slow delivery of emergency aid and an initial government refusal to help retrieve bodies.

More than 4,000 villagers were displaced by Friday's disaster, which buried some 300 homes in the northern village of Aab Bareek in up to 50 meters of mud, killing hundreds, and left nearly 700 other houses uninhabitable.

Aid agencies have rushed tons of emergency supplies to the capital of Badakhshan province but distribution has been hindered by scuffles between the victims, the poor from nearby villages and security forces.

Karzai made his first direct comments on the disaster, and offered prayers at the site of the landslide.

"My minister of rural development will remain here and will build you new shelters, provide you with food and water and won't leave until it is all done," he told hundreds of victims sitting in a dusty open area near the camp.

Villagers have complained that the government has let them down, failing to provide shelter and food and not helping them recover the remains of their loved ones.

But Karzai said the government would help dig out bodies after it had said the site would be left as a mass grave.

One villager pleaded with Karzai, who will soon step down as president after more than 12 years in power, to do something to help his struggling family.

"I have lost six members of my family and please come to my tent and you will see that even the little babies do not have milk," he told the president.

The Afghan army has sent about 100 soldiers to the area.

On Tuesday, the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration suspended operations in the area after police fired gunshots into the air after villagers stoned officers trying to protect a truck delivering aid.

A similar incident occurred on Monday.

Tons of supplies, mostly from nearby Tajikistan, remain in the provincial capital as local officials wait for security to be tightened.

Relief workers say the displaced must be moved from the refugee camp as soon as possible as another landslide could occur at any time due to heavy rain and melting snow.

Karzai was constitutionally barred from competing in last month's election, leaving the next president to deal with a range of sensitive issues, including an as-yet unsigned bilateral security agreement with the United States.

Karzai has refused to sign the pact allowing a small U.S. force to stay in the country beyond the December 31 deadline for all foreign combat troops to leave. Washington wants to keep some troops in Afghanistan for counterinsurgency and training purposes.

There was no outright winner in the first round of the vote. Former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah and ex-World bank economist Ashraf Ghani are set to contest a run-off, most likely on June 7. Both say they will sign the security pact.

Afghanistan's Western backers are closely watching the security situation in order to decide whether to continue to extend billions of aid desperately needed to support Afghanistan's ailing economy.

(Writing by Hamid Shalizi, Editing by Jeremy Laurence and Nick Macfie)

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