Storms block rescuers in Pakistan

Posted in Other | 12-Oct-05 | Author: Carlotta Gall and David Rohde| Source: International Herald Tribune

Four days after an earthquake leveled many villages in northern Pakistan, an injured Pakistani was rescued on Tuesday in Balakot.
ISLAMABAD Four full days after an earthquake devastated northern Pakistan, pelting hail and rain prevented rescuers from reaching thousands of survivors still trapped in isolated Himalayan villages on Tuesday, Pakistani officials said.

Rescuers have not yet reached "hundreds of villages," according to the spokesman for the Pakistan Army, Major General Shaukat Sultan.

A shortage of helicopters also hampered rescuers. Eight American military helicopters joined relief efforts on Tuesday, but bad weather grounded flights on Tuesday afternoon.

A total of 34 Pakistani military and civilian helicopters are involved in the rescue effort, according to Pakistani military officials. They said that represented virtually every helicopter in the impoverished nation of 150 million people, and many more helicopters are needed.

"Yes, certainly, to reach out," Sultan said. "There are many areas we haven't been able to reach."

Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz put the death toll on Tuesday at 23,000, up from an estimated 20,000 the day before. Of the 51,000 people injured in the earthquake, only 3,110 have been evacuated from the area by helicopter, according to Pakistani officials.

The vast majority of casualties are in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir. UN officials said that an unknown number of Afghans who inhabited refugee camps in the area were among the dead.

Across the disputed Line of Control, on the Indian-controlled side, the death toll rose sharply to an estimated 1,300 Tuesday. The Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, on a swing through the worst-hit areas of Indian-controlled Kashmir, called it "a national calamity" and pledged $116 million to rebuild the area. Part of that money will go toward relief aid for Pakistan, which Islamabad accepted Monday.

As reports of desperate survivors looting and fighting over aid emerged from some devastated towns in Kashmir, the United Nations issued a worldwide appeal for $272 million in earthquake aid. On the streets of Islamabad, the capital, organizations pitched impromptu tents to collect donations for victims. North of the capital, dozens of minivans driven by volunteers and packed with supplies snarled roads leading to hard-hit areas.

In one hamlet on the Pakistani side of Kashmir, 160 kilometers, or 100 miles, northeast of Islamabad, Asghar Hussain Shah, a 49-year-old schoolteacher, shivered in a thin cardigan beside his broken house.

He, his wife and children huddled under a sodden tarpaulin to escape the rain that fell over this village, called Mohri Furman Shah.

"We cannot sleep in the house," he said. "All the men and women are frightened."

Shah said his extended family - four brothers, a sister, and three small children - have camped out for three nights and were now trying to keep dry under makeshift shelters beneath the trees.

"We need tents, plastic sheeting, beds and blankets," he said. "We are hoping the government will come to the rescue."

The hamlet escaped with just six deaths after all 300 children at the local school escaped before it collapsed, leaving about 20 injured.

But it is now four days after the quake hit and no government official or soldier has stopped to offer help, even though the hamlet sits on a main road.

"We have seen no government person and no army," Shah said. "We are expecting something, but have had nothing so far."

While little aid reached small villages, search and rescue teams from Turkey, Britain, Germany, France and other countries continued to search for survivors in the larger, hard-hit towns of Muzaffarabad and Balakot, according to news reports.

After rescuing five children from a collapsed school in Balakot, a French rescue team wrapped up its operations there on Tuesday, Agence France-Presse reported.

In Islamabad on Tuesday afternoon, a team searching a collapsed high-rise apartment building pulled a 75-year-old mother and her 55-year-old daughter alive from the rubble. Late Monday evening, an Iraqi woman and her young child were found alive in the same building. Searchers continued their efforts at the building Tuesday night.

Earlier in the day at the Pakistani military airfield in Islamabad, rescue teams from Jordan, Malaysia and Russia experienced frustration. After rushing to Pakistan to save lives, they found themselves stuck after bad weather grounded helicopters.

Before heavy rains set in, nearly 20 of the most seriously wounded arrived at the airfield by helicopter from villages in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir.

A 5-year-old boy named Owais, his left leg swollen and bandaged, lay on the ground, sipping a box of mango juice and waiting to be taken to an area hospital. He had been filling a water bottle outside his school when the quake jolted his village. His sister, 10, was in class; she did not make it out.

Efforts appear to fall short

International aid workers, including Turkish doctors, medics from the aid organization Médecins Sans Frontières, and assessment teams from other agencies were working in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, where most homes and all government buildings were destroyed. But the effort did not appear to be nearly enough to meet the overwhelming needs, The Associated Press reported.

Bob McKerrow, coordinator of relief efforts for the International Federation of the Red Cross, said in Islamabad late Tuesday that 17 trucks had left for affected areas with supplies, including blood for hospitals. He said heavy rains could hamper the relief effort.

"Some of the roads are just being reopened and this rain is not going to help at all," McKerrow said. "And the possibility of further landslides blocking roads is a threat every minute of the day."

About 10 trucks brought by Pakistani charities and volunteers rumbled into Muzaffarabad, where efforts by relief workers to distribute aid turned chaotic as residents scuffled for the handouts of cooking oil, sugar, rice, blankets and tents.

Police officers looked on helplessly as more than 200 people raided a stock of food arranged by relief workers at a soccer field near Muzaffarabad's center - one of six designated aid distribution points. One man made off with a big sack of sugar, another left on a motorized rickshaw with a big crate of drinking water.

"'I can't wait for the food to be distributed properly," said Ali Khan, a construction worker who has barely eaten for days. "I need it desperately and I'll take it."

The quake damaged sanitation systems in the region, destroyed hospitals and left many victims with no access to clean drinking water, making them more vulnerable to disease.

"Measles could potentially become a serious problem," said Fadela Chaib, spokeswoman for the World Health Organization in Geneva.

"We fear that if people huddle closely together in temporary shelters and crowded conditions, more measles cases could occur."

Measles, which are potentially deadly for children, are already endemic in the region and only 60 percent of the children are protected. At least 90 percent coverage is needed to prevent an epidemic, the UN agency said. The WHO will soon start gathering essential vaccines for a mass immunization program.

The World Food Program, another UN agency, began a major airlift of emergency supplies. Japan pledged $20 million in aid, Canada offered $17 million and the United States pledged up to $50 million.

Other nations also announced donations of money and supplies, including tents, blankets, medical aid and food kits.

In Washington, a spokesman for the Pentagon, Larry Di Rita, said five CH-47 and three H-60 helicopters had been sent to Pakistan from Afghanistan and that four more were en route. Within the next few days there probably will be 25 to 30 American military helicopters sent to Pakistan, from Afghanistan, Bahrain and other countries in the region.

Di Rita said Pakistan had asked the U.S. military mainly for heavy equipment like earthmovers, forklifts, bulldozers and trucks, in addition to tents, blankets and food.

The U.S. military also is flying aerial reconnaissance missions to help Pakistan pinpoint areas for emergency supply deliveries, he said.

In Brussels, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization agreed on Tuesday to coordinate an airlift of aid supplies from Europe to Pakistan.

The alliance said in a statement that it would use national planes provided by the 26 allies, in addition to its own cargo planes to transport emergency aid.

The first plane, a Boeing 737 jetliner converted to carry cargo, will fly Wednesday to Slovenia to pick up 7.5 tons of relief supplies for Pakistan, officials said.

It was too early to say how many planes would be used in the operation, officials said, but it was likely to involve civilian and military planes from the allies coordinated by NATO's military command in southern Belgium.

Individual allies my also detach units from the alliance peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan to help with the relief effort, NATO officials said.

But the alliance as a whole would not be making a significant shift of resources from Afghanistan due to the need to maintain security there.