MAZAR-I-SHARIF - A landslide in northern Afghanistan killed at least 350 people on Friday, officials said, with hundreds also feared missing as a major rescue operation was launched to find survivors in villages buried under mud.
The first emergency teams on the scene in Badakhshan province started digging through rocks and dirt as local authorities, the United Nations and the NATO-led military force raced to assess the damage and provide help.
"The number of deceased has increased to 350," the UN mission in Afghanistan said in a statement.
"A response is being mobilised for those who survived but were displaced, with some partners already on the ground.
"(NATO's) Regional Command in the north in contact with the Afghan National Army in regards to search and rescue efforts."
Badakhshan is a remote province in northeast Afghanistan bordering Tajikistan, China and Pakistan.
"It is a disaster. The landslide has affected around 1,000 families," Sayed Abdullah Homayun Dehqan, provincial director of the Afghan National Disaster Management Authority, told AFP.
"Around 300 families are missing, that could involve around 2,000 people. The people are working to remove the rocks, so far three bodies have been recovered.
"Around 700 families were rescued, we have sent in some basic assistance such as tents and blankets."
US President Barack Obama expressed his condolences over the disaster, saying "our thoughts are with the people of Afghanistan who have experienced an awful tragedy."
"We stand ready to help our Afghan partners as they respond to this disaster," Obama said at a joint press conference in Washington with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The UN said that it was helping to coordinate local authorities to rescue those still trapped, but that road access to the area could not take heavy machinery.
"About 350 to 400 houses were destroyed in Argo district as a result of heavy rains that triggered landslides," Badakhshan province deputy governor Gul Mohammad Baidaar told AFP.
The disaster follows recent severe flooding in other parts of northern Afghanistan, with 150 people dead and 67,000 people affected by floods in Jowzjan, Faryab and Sar-e-Pul provinces.
"With nearly 3,500 houses reported damaged and destroyed the caseload in need of shelter continues to grow," the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said on Thursday.
It said clean water, medical supplies, food and shelter were needed immediately as relief efforts were stepped up after days of torrential rain.
The floodwaters swept through villages, engulfing thousands of homes and leaving many people seeking safety on the roofs of their mud-brick houses.
The floods destroyed farmland and also killed livestock across the remote region.
Flooding often occurs during the spring rainy season in northern Afghanistan, with flimsy mud houses offering little protection against rising water levels.
Two weeks ago, a landslide triggered by heavy rains and a small earthquake swept through two villages in the northern province of Takhar, killing four people and destroying around 100 houses.
In the last major flooding in Afghanistan, 40 people died in August in flash floods in eastern and southeastern provinces and some districts of the capital Kabul.
Neighbouring Pakistan suffered the worst floods in its history in 2010 when almost 1,800 people died and 21 million people were affected.