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AFGHAN WINTER TURNS DEADLY

The impoverished country reportsmore than 650 dead from the record cold.

Several men lay side by side in hospital beds, the stubs of their amputated arms and legs wrapped in fresh bandages. They are not victims of war or land mines, but of frostbite.

It's the coldest this impoverished, war-ravaged nation has been in at least a decade - that's as far back as Afghanistan's weather records go - and so far, the harsh weather has been blamed for more than 650 deaths.

The hospital in Herat has taken in more than 90 patients suffering from problems related to the weather, many of them shepherds. Several of the amputee patients were tending their sheep and goats when a blizzard shrouded the western province in blinding snow and left them stranded.

"I was surrounded by snow for two days, and I couldn't find my way back," said Ahmad Sadiq, 18, whose uncle died in the storm. One of his feet was amputated, and the doctors decided that the other will have to go, too.

"I don't want to live like this. I can't walk anymore. It's better to die than to live like this," he said.

Afghanistan is largely mountainous, and many people live in remote villages reachable only by foot. It's one of the poorest countries in the world, and most people live in mud and thatch homes heated by burning wood, coal or dung.

Temperatures this winter have plummeted to a low of 22 degrees below zero. The more mountainous regions have seen up to 70 inches of snow, said Abdul Qadir Qadir, head of the meteorology department.

Aid organizations and foreign troops have passed out several tons of clothing, blankets, food and fuel in provinces throughout the country and in remote, mountainous villages.

Among those hardest hit in Kabul are 70 displaced families recently relocated from the southern Helmand province, which was the front line of battles last year between international troops and insurgents.

Children walk barefoot in the freezing cold mud and snow. Many of the "houses" are like that of 30-year-old Fatima and her family - a rectangular hole a few feet deep covered by a tarp.

"My children are all sick and are coughing throughout the night," said Fatima, who goes by only one name.

FAST FACTS

Gates implores allies to fight extremists

NATO's survival is at stake in the debate over how the United States and Europe should share the burden of fighting Islamic extremism in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Sunday. "We must not - we cannot - become a two-tiered alliance of those willing to fight and those who are not," Gates told the Munich Conference on Security Policy. "Such a development, with all its implications for collective security, would effectively destroy the alliance," he added. A central theme of Gates' speech was his assertion that al-Qaida extremists, either in Afghanistan or elsewhere, pose a greater threat to Europe than many Europeans realize.

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