October 16, 2005

Pakistan Quake Death Toll Nears 40,000

BALAKOT, Pakistan -- The death toll from Pakistan's earthquake rose sharply to nearly 40,000 on Saturday, with the president warning the numbers could rise even further as relief teams reach more villages in the remote folds of the Himalayan mountains.

The Pakistani military said Sunday one of its helicopters flying an aid mission crashed in bad weather late Saturday, killing all six people aboard.

Throughout the region, homeless survivors searched desperately for blankets and tents to brace against torrential rains and temperatures that dipped to 44 degrees. The sudden cold weather in some hard-hit areas was an ominous sign that winter was fast approaching - with thousands of villagers still cut off from any aid a week after the magnitude-7.6 quake struck on Oct 8.

Heavy rain began early Saturday and continued Sunday morning in many stricken towns. Snow fell in the surrounding mountains, disrupting efforts to help an estimated 2 million people still lacking shelter. Only 18,000 tents have been distributed so far to house them, Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said Saturday.

The transport helicopter was returning home late Saturday after dropping off relief workers in the hard-hit town of Bagh. All those killed were military personnel, said army spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan. Bad weather or a technical malfunction were the suspected causes of the crash, he said.

The bad weather turned Bagh into a rain-soaked nightmare with victims streaming in from nearby villages seeking help from aid groups.

On Saturday, similar problems were found in Balakot, where 25-year-old Mohammed Qassim took shelter from the rain under the corrugated roof of a collapsed building.

He was searching desperately for a tent to keep his five children, as well as the families of his two brothers, reasonably warm.

"For the sake of God, please give me one tent so that three families can live," he recalled telling aid groups, most of which appear to have run out of tents. "They said no." He's hoping to at least get plastic sheets.

"We distributed 1,000 tents yesterday but we have run out," said Farhi Butt, who partly owns a telecommunication company that had rushed aid to Balakot.

He had resorted to cutting up plastic signs and distributing them in sheets.

"They're waterproof," he said. "It's not what they're made for, but it will help the people survive for right now."

Helicopter relief flights - which have been ferrying supplies into the quake zone and carrying out the injured - were halted for about 90 minutes Saturday morning before resuming, except to Balakot where the weather was particularly bad. That left hundreds of injured, cold and terrified people waiting by the helipad, hoping for the weather to clear.

President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said the grim numbers - estimated by the military at 38,000 dead and 62,000 injured in Pakistan alone - were likely to rise in the coming days as rescue teams reach more remote villages.

The official toll in Pakistan, which previously stood at 25,000, rose sharply because more bodies have been pulled from the rubble in recent days, army officials said.

"I think it will keep rising when we go into the valleys," the president said at a news conference in Rawalpindi, near the capital.

"There are rescue operations going on, but after eight days it's going to be a miracle" to save anyone else, he said. "From a medical point of view we don't want epidemics to spread, and that's why we are continuing (clearing bodies)."

A 13-member team of doctors from the United States was to fly to the affected area from Lahore on Sunday, state news agency APP reported. The team, including Pakistani doctors practicing in the United States, was bringing tents, medicine and hospital equipment.

On Saturday, the prime minister made it clear that shelter was now the priority.

"We need tents, tents, tents and prefab housing," Aziz told reporters.

Officials say 200,000 houses were destroyed by the quake. Aziz also said officials were planning an international donors' conference to be held within the next week in Geneva.

He estimated that rebuilding Pakistan would cost "close to $5 billion."

Pakistan's Interior Ministry on Saturday ordered that visas be granted free-of-charge to all relief workers and doctors coming to help for the next three months. Already 2,873 emergency personnel from 61 countries have flooded in, the ministry said.

While U.N. officials have estimated the reconstruction would take 10 years, "we think it would be faster," it said.

The U.N.'s World Food Program said Saturday it had flown in 35 tons of high-energy bars, donated by Norway, to be distributed in the affected areas. The rations contain enough nutrients for one week for more than 75,000 people, and more flights were planned for next week, the agency said.

At 8:51 a.m. - exactly a week after the quake - thousands of Muslims gathered at Islamabad's towering Faisal mosque for special prayers for the dead.

Prayer leader Qari Nauman Ahmad urged people to donate what they could to quake victims and to seek God's forgiveness, saying continuing aftershocks were a sign that God was not happy.

Rescue workers abandoned the official search Friday for survivors trapped in the rubble, though individual efforts continued.

"There are still some affected areas that need to be reached," Sardar Anwar Khan, president of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, said in city of Muzaffarabad, one of the worst hit areas.

More delays could be catastrophic. UNICEF has warned that thousands of children could die from cold, malnutrition and disease.

Overnight rains also prevented troops from getting relief to three villages still cut off in Indian Kashmir, where some 1,350 people have died, officials said.

Indian army soldiers on foot were trying to reach Taad, Shararat and Vayu - all at least 10,000 feet up in the Himalayas - said V.V. Vyas, a top provincial bureaucrat overseeing relief work.