Geologists investigate Pakistan volcano reports

Pakistan’s army was flying geologists to an isolated north-western valley on Tuesday to investigate reports of possible volcanic activity after the massive October 8 earthquake, an official said, adding that aftershocks and landslides could be confusing terrified villagers.

The Pakistani geologists will survey the Alai valley, and if they find evidence of a volcanic eruption, the 150 000 people who live there will be evacuated, said army spokesperson Major General Shaukat Sultan.

Army helicopters flew over the rugged region of North West Frontier province on Monday and found no signs of an eruption, Sultan said.

An estimated 3,3-million people have been left homeless by the quake, which killed at least 53 000 people and has been followed by hundreds of aftershocks that have frightened survivors and triggered landslides.

A huge international relief effort has been mounted, but fears remain for vulnerable communities in distant mountains with the harsh Himalayan winter closing in.

Despite fresh appeals and warnings of a second wave of deaths, the United Nations said on Monday it has received less than 30% of the $312-million it needs to help the victims.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan invited ministers to attend a high-level donor conference in Geneva on Wednesday to mobilise additional financial support.

Cloudy weather on Tuesday raised concern that rain could fall in the coming days. But Major Farooq Nasir, army spokesperson in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan’s portion of Kashmir, said helicopter relief flights were still operating.

Noise of landslides

Sultan said it was possible that people in the Alai Valley—located at a height of about 1 800m and surrounded by mountains as high as 3 000m—could be mistaking the noise of aftershocks or landslides for the sound of a volcano.

“It could be more prominent in the valley because it is very narrow and aftershocks trigger landslides in the mountains, which have already been cut by the earthquake. It kicks up dust due to which local people believe there could be some volcanic activity,” he said.

An official from Pakistan’s meteorological department, who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorised to speak to the media, said there was very little chance of volcanic activity as there was no recent history of eruptions in Pakistan.

Meanwhile, police in the quake-hit Mansehra district, north of Islamabad, have arrested 350 to 400 people over the past two weeks for taking relief supplies—by stealing them outright or by lining up to receive aid more than once, local police chief Yamin Khan said.

The arrests have been made in a number of damaged towns since relief started flowing in for quake victims, Khan said.

“We want to ensure that only those who need the aid get it,” he said.

Many were later released on bail, another police official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to make press statements.
They could face up to three years in jail, he said.

Indian soldiers have set up a relief camp for Pakistani quake victims along the Line of Control dividing the rivals’ areas of Kashmir, although it remains empty as India and Pakistan try to broker a deal to allow people to cross the militarised frontier.

US field hospital opens

Also on Tuesday, a United States Army field hospital unit, with more than 130 staff, started treated patients in Muzaffarabad—on a mission Washington hopes will help generate goodwill among Pakistanis.

Officials say it is the eighth mobile hospital to be set up in the ruined city, and only two patients were waiting when it opened on Tuesday morning. The hospital’s arrival was delayed by a shortage of aircraft, vehicle breakdowns and the winding roads of the lower Himalayas.

The first patient, Aribba Abbasi, a three-year-old girl, was suffering a broken thigh from when her home collapsed on her. The other, Faisal Hussain, an eight-year-old boy, had been caught in a collapsed school and had a bad gash on his ankle. Both had already received treatment but needed follow-up care.

“We are hoping to get proper treatment here. We are glad the Americans came,” said Faisal’s father, Sharif Hussain.

US officials say they are eager to show Pakistan—a major ally in the war on terrorism—that the US is here in its hour of need. Its helicopters—mostly heavy-lifting Chinooks—are key to the air relief effort.

A second hospital unit is on its way from the US base at Okinawa, Japan, said Rear Admiral Michael LeFever, director of the US Disaster Assistance Centre in Pakistan. That team, along with more helicopter and maintenance personnel, will bring the total US military presence there to more than 1 000.

The official quake toll is more than 53 000 dead and 75 000 injured, though central government figures have lagged behind regional ones. Figures from officials in the North West Frontier province and Pakistan’s part of Kashmir add up to about 78 000.

India reported 1 360 deaths in its part of Kashmir.—Sapa-AP

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