Freezing quake survivors wait for help

Hundreds of thousands of quake survivors in the mountains of northeast Pakistan were on Monday desperately waiting for help after spending a second night in freezing temperatures, as the confirmed death toll rose to nearly 20 000.

In many villages and towns hardest hit by Saturday’s 7,6 magnitude quake, people dug through the night with their bare hands in an often futile attempt to reach friends and relatives trapped in the rubble.

The United Nations said more helicopters were needed urgently to bring rescue equipment and vital aid to stricken villages high in the Himalayas where roads had been destroyed by landslides.

”We are seeing enormous suffering and facing enormous challenges,” Jan Egeland, UN coordinator of humanitarian affairs and emergency relief, told Agence France Presse. ”We’re talking about millions affected by this.”

He said Pakistan had deployed its own substantial fleet of helicopters to search for survivors but the scale of the disaster required more choppers and small fixed-wing aircraft.

The United States responded by offering eight military helicopters — mostly twin-rotor Chinooks based in neighbouring Afghanistan — and two C-130 aircraft loaded with tents, blankets and other relief supplies.

As international rescue teams with sniffer dogs and specialist equipment began arriving in Pakistan, the authorities said over 19 100 had been confirmed dead and over 42 000 people were injured.

But Pakistani military spokesperson Major General Shaukat Sultan said the death toll would continue to soar, and an official in Pakistani-held Kashmir said the eventual toll in that region alone would top 30 000.

Pakistani officials said more than 11 000 people had been confirmed dead in the town of Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir.

”Muzaffarabad is devastated,” said the local minister for works and communication, Tariq Farooq.

The earthquake struck on Saturday morning as schools were beginning classes, and hundreds if not thousands of children are feared to have died when buildings collapsed or were engulfed by landslides.

Officials said the hospitals in Muzaffarabad had been hard hit, and the Pakistani military flew in special teams of surgeons and set up field hospitals in the town.

”It’s not only rescue work that is being affected, we have to start relief efforts as well. There’s a huge need for field hospitals, water, sanitation and for food,” Gerhard Putman-Cramer, head of the UN’s Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team, said in Islamabad.

The earthquake also hit the Indian-held zone of Kashmir hard with officials there saying over 600 people were confirmed dead. They also warned many remote villages had yet to be reached and the death toll would likely rise.

The epicentre was close to the dividing line between the Indian- and Pakistani-controlled zones of Kashmir, and scores of soldiers on both sides died when their heavily-fortified positions collapsed around them.

Nuclear-armed India and Pakistan have fought two wars over Kashmir, but a peace process is under way and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has reached out to Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf to offer help.

Offers of aid and assistance have begun pouring in from around the world.

The World Bank offered $20-million while the Asian Development Bank pledged $10-million in immediate aid and assistance.

Japan said it had sent a 50-strong emergency relief team and Britain, which has a large South Asian community, said it was sending an initial £100 000 ($176 000) and a 60-strong rescue and relief team.

Australia on Monday also pledged Aus$5,5-million ($4,18-million), up from an initial Aus$500 000 emergency relief promised at the weekend. – AFP



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