Afghan Villagers Panning for Gold Die as Tunnels Collapse

MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan — More than two dozen villagers panning for gold in the northern Afghan province of Badakhshan were killed on Sunday after the makeshift tunnels where they were working collapsed following heavy snowfall, officials said.

Muhammad Rustam Raghi, the governor of Kohistan district, said that police officers and villagers had pulled out 30 dead as well as seven wounded, and that the rescue efforts were continuing.

Mr. Raghi said that about 10,000 people pan for gold along the river, called Pushpul, often illegally digging tunnels as deep as 50 feet with simple machinery and then searching for gold with pans for about $7 a day.

Afghanistan is believed to have vast mineral wealth, but continuing violence, a lack of strong state institutions and widespread corruption have meant that the sector contributes little to the country’s economy, which is still largely dependent on foreign donors.

On Sunday, a group of 130 workers were working in heavy snow near or inside a tunnel by the river when the land gave way around 10 a.m., trapping and killing many of them, a local official said.

Excavation equipment was used to rescue the wounded and to recover the bodies, said the official, Mahboobur-rahman Talat, a member of Badakhshan provincial council who is from Kohistan.

Haji Nasruddin, a local elder who helped dig up the bodies, said the heavy snowfall had made it difficult to take them away for burial.

“We have loaded the bodies onto vehicles, but there is heavy snow on the road and part of the road was also destroyed by the slide,” he said. “We are trying to fix the road before we could transport the bodies.

Strongmen and political elites have long profited from mining, raising fears that tapping into mineral wealth on a large scale amid a raging war could turn into another source of instability.

The Afghan government has tried to regulate the mining sector by offering new contracts in an effort to improve oversight, but even those deals have been marred by charges of corruption and irregularity.

Last year, the government in Kabul signed two contracts for exploration of copper and gold in the north. But watchdog groups criticized the agreements, saying they may violate conflict-of-interest laws and allow questionable practices that have marred the mining sector for years to continue.

Part of the river in Badakhshan where the deadly episode occurred is controlled by the Taliban, who get a cut from the gold panned there, said Mr. Talat, the provincial council member.

Separately, in the south of the country, the Taliban seem to have increased their attacks in recent weeks, officials said, and the official toll from an assault on Friday in Kandahar Province more than doubled by Sunday.

After the Taliban attacked a border police outpost in the district of Spinboldak on Friday, the local government put the number of soldiers killed at 7. But on Sunday, Nimatullah Wafa, a member of provincial council, confirmed reports attributed to local officials that 16 soldiers had died.

It was the latest in a series of attacks on police checkpoints in Spinboldak, which borders Pakistan. The district was also home to the former powerful police chief of Kandahar, Gen. Abdul Raziq, who was assassinated in a daring Taliban attack in October, barely missing Gen. Austin S. Miller, the top American commander in Afghanistan.

Officials have expressed fear that the Taliban will make a stronger push for Kandahar Province. Mr. Wafa, the provincial council member, said the insurgents had gained more influence in districts along the border with Pakistan and had launched more frequent attacks in areas that were once peaceful.

“The security situation in some Kandahar districts is getting worse,” Mr. Wafa said. “They have more courage to attack a peaceful district like Spinboldak — that rarely happened when Gen. Raziq was alive.”

Najim Rahim reported from Mazar-i-Sharif, and Mujib Mashal from Kabul, Afghanistan.

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