January 15, 2006

Rain and snow grounds Pakistan quake relief

By Abu Arqam Naqash

MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan (Reuters) - Rain and snow grounded
relief flights and triggered several landslides in Pakistan's
earthquake zone on Sunday, cutting off some remote villages and
towns, officials said.

On Saturday, the Meteorological Department said moderate
and at times heavy snow was expected over the next four to five
days and could be expected to disrupt the international relief
effort underway since the October 8 quake killed more than
73,000 people.

Helicopters, which had been flying up to 70 sorties a day
to highland areas, were grounded on Sunday morning due to rain,
said Major Farooq Nasir, a spokesman for the army in
Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistani Kashmir.

The bad weather comes ahead of an expected visit to the
quake zone by former U.S. President George Bush, who has been
appointed the U.N. special envoy for the relief operation, and
was due in Islamabad on Sunday afternoon.

All U.N. flights were canceled on Sunday, said U.N.
spokesman Ben Malor. "We are waiting to see if the weather
clears tomorrow," he said.

Rain triggered landslides on roads through two
quake-affected valleys in Pakistani Kashmir, the Neelum and
Jhelum, cutting off several villages and towns, officials said.

"At least three landslides have been reactivated by the
rains on (the) Neelum Valley road, halting all movement on it,"
police officer Zahoor Gillani said.

The Jhelum valley road was closed beyond Chinari, 50 km (30
miles) south of Muzaffarabad, the army's Nasir said. "If the
rain continues, more slides are bound to occur," he said.


More than two million people have been camping out in tents
or in simple shelters since the quake, but so far the huge
relief effort organized by the army and international agencies
has averted a feared second wave of deaths.

On Saturday, the United Nations said cold and disease were
constant threats, but if donations were sustained, the more
than three million survivors should make it through the winter.

U.N. relief officials are particularly concerned about
people living at high altitudes, and those in cramped,
unorganized tent settlements that have sprung up in valleys
across the region.

Good weather in December allowed more aid to be
prepositioned in the mountains than expected, but the threat of
freezing temperatures and deep snow hangs over the region.

On Saturday, the director of the U.N. Children's Fund in
Pakistan, Omar Abdi, said the cold remained a huge danger.

Survivors living in crude tents at a makeshift camp in
Muzaffarabad are worried.

"So far, our tent has not leaked but who knows how long it
will withstand the weather," said 19-year-old Sehrish Latif.

Aid agencies have provided polythene sheets to help prevent
tent leakage, but these cannot withstand snow, which brought
down many tents in the last heavy snowfall this month.

"If snow falls in the town, I am sure our tent will
collapse," said another survivor, Khalid Khan, 37.

(Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in ISLAMABAD)