Earthquake death toll reaches 54 000

Heavy rains receded on Monday in the Himalayan region of Kashmir, giving hope that efforts could resume to bring aid to the millions of homeless survivors of a monster earthquake that killed an estimated 54 000 people.

In the town of Bagh in Pakistan’s portion of Kashmir, the bodies of five soldiers killed when their MI-17 transport helicopter crashed on Saturday were lain into simple wooden coffins for transport back to Islamabad.

The remains were located on Sunday but could not be flown back immediately because of bad weather. The body of the sixth soldier killed in the crash has not yet been found.

Two strong aftershocks struck the region in the early morning, including one with a magnitude of 4,5, but there was no immediate report of damage. There have been hundreds of aftershocks since the main 7,6-magnitude earthquake on October 8, and experts say they could continue for months.

Officials on Sunday sharply raised estimates of the dead.
Abdul Khaliq Wasi, a spokesperson for the local government of Pakistani Kashmir, which bore the brunt of the quake, said at least 40 000 people died there and that the toll could go much higher. Not all the bodies had been counted and the figure represented the “closest estimate”, he said.

That pushed estimates of the total death toll to more than 54 000, including more than 13 000 in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province and about 1 350 in the part of divided Kashmir that India controls.

Confirmation of a final death toll will be difficult because many bodies are buried beneath the rubble. United Nations officials said that, so far, they were adhering to the Pakistani government’s confirmed casualty toll, which was 39 422 dead and 65 038 injured.

The United Nations has estimated that two million are homeless.

Visiting a hospital in Islamabad, Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said about 1 000 injured children had been evacuated from the region for medical help, primarily to the capital.

On Sunday, an aid worker with Pakistan’s Sungi Development Foundation was killed when he accidentally walked into a helicopter’s tail rotor while trying to drive away a crowd as it prepared to leave Balakot to pick up more supplies, state news agency APP reported.

Bagh is one of the worst-hit areas, and relief workers have been unable to provide enough temporary shelters for residents, let alone for villagers who have streamed in from the mountains. Mud rushed through the streets of the shattered town like a river on Sunday, and water saturated the fields used for relief helicopter landings.

Major General Farooq Ahmed Khan, the country’s relief commissioner, said 29 000 tents and 118 000 blankets had been distributed in the quake zone. Khan had said earlier that 100 000 tents were needed.

The army said medical supplies such as syringes, painkillers and antibiotics were also needed, but asked donors to stop sending fresh water because most affected areas had enough.

Though the aftershocks have caused little new damage, they have made the local inhabitants fearful of returning to their homes.

“My house is full of cracks, and I won’t go inside,” said Bagh resident Mumtaz Rathore, huddled under a plastic sheet with his wife and four children.

In cooperation between two longtime rivals, India gave Pakistan permission to send relief helicopters into the 1,6 kilometer-wide no-fly-zone on the Pakistani side of the ceasefire line that divides Kashmir.

India’s Foreign Ministry said its third shipment of aid to Pakistan, about 170 tonnes of supplies including 100 tonnes of fortified biscuits, would arrive by train in the country on Monday.

Many earthquake victims remain cut off by road.

“About 20% of the populated areas [in the quake zone] have yet to be reached,” said Geoffrey Krassy, a United States State Department official who was redeployed to the quake zone from a mission in Afghanistan.

The Pakistani military said roads to several valleys remained closed by landslides, and that it could take several weeks to clear them. In some areas, Pakistani soldiers evacuated injured villagers by carrying them on their backs. - Sapa-AP

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