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Pakistan quake relief accelerates, problems remain
Updated: 2005-10-18 21:31

MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan (Reuters) - Streams of people clambered into the hills of northern Pakistan carrying aid back to quake-shattered villages on Tuesday as clear weather helped a huge relief operation accelerate.

A Kashmiri woman prays for her husband killed by the October 8 earthquake at a new grave in Nisar, north of Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir October 18, 2005. The earthquake killed at least 41,000 in Pakistan and injured 67,000, while in Indian Kashmir a further 1,300 people died. [Reuters]

Some villagers had trekked as much as 35 km (22 miles) to the wrecked town of Muzaffarabad to pick up food and blankets as the harsh Himalayan winter approaches.

"We are desperate," said Muhammad Naeem after walking seven hours with dozens of men, women and teenaged boys from his village in the Neelum valley, a region cut off by landslides and which he said had received only a few air drops.

"Our houses have been destroyed and we have nothing left," he said before turning back again. "But we can take only a very small quantity of goods on foot as it is a very difficult and long walk to our village up in the hills."

The quake killed at least 41,000 in Pakistan and injured 67,000, while in Indian Kashmir a further 1,300 people died, although there was sensational news for one family near the North West Frontier Province town of Balakot.

Soldiers pulled six-year-old Taj-un-Nisa from the rubble of her home on Monday, nine days after the quake struck. A fallen cupboard protected her and she had only a minor head injury.

But the emphasis now is relief, not rescue.

Helicopters, back in the air after weekend rains grounded the only means of getting aid deep into the mountains quickly, delivered supplies and brought back people who had lain injured since their world, high in the hills, was shattered 10 days ago.

However, helicopters have not been able to reach some mountainside communities -- forcing many desperate villagers to trek for hours, even days, in search of help -- and nor have they been able to deliver enough to those within reach.

"Fifty percent of Neelum Valley has still not been reached by helicopter or ground troops. It will take another week to 10 days," said Major-General Jawed Aslam Tahir, who is running the air relief operations.


"Given the numbers we're trying to reach and the scale of the commodities we are trying to move, we need a functioning road network and trucks on the road 24 hours a day," said Robert Holden, head of the U.N. relief operation in Muzaffarabad.

That is not going to happen soon. Rebuilding roads buckled or swept away by landslides will take weeks and much of the relief pouring into the region is heading up into the rugged mountains on two feet or four.

Troops were cutting tracks across landslides so heavily laden mules, which can carry far more than a human, could cross them.

"Pushing out from here is going to prove problematic for some time," Holden said in Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistani Kashmir, which along with adjoining North West Frontier Province bore the brunt of the October 8 quake.

It will remain like that for quite a while. By nightfall on Tuesday, army engineers should have cleared just 4 km (2.5 miles) of the valley's 160-km (100-mile) road, a senior officer said.

He estimated 10 km (6 miles) of the road was totally blocked and at least half of the rest partially blocked.

British doctor Sean Keogh made a three-day trek up the Neelum valley and recounted seeing up to 2,000 people in urgent need of treatment, many with injuries in danger of becoming septic.

"There are going to be a lot more deaths," said Keogh of the British medical aid group Merlin.

Those he saw had made it, or were carried, down to what is left of the road: how many people could not make is not known.

Some who did make it to places like Chakoti in the Jhelum valley 60 km (40 miles) southeast of Muzaffarabad, from where the injured could be taken to hospital by helicopter, spoke of terrible ordeals.

Holding his mother's head as she lay on a blanket after being airlifted to Islamabad, Hassan Din recounted how he and 20 other villagers had walked for two days. Two men died on the way from lack of food, cold and exhaustion, he said.

The lowest estimate of the number of people left homeless in Pakistan is 1 million. They need winter tents, soon.

Despite frantic, oft-repeated appeals and urgent deliveries from abroad, there are still nowhere near enough tents to shelter people who have lost everything.

The deputy head of Muzaffarabad's civil administration, Liaqat Hussain, said there were plans for tent cities to house 20,000 people in and around the town.

More than 100,000 tents and 700,000-800,000 blankets would be needed and building the camps -- where people could be supplied with food, health care, schools and other services -- would depend on when the tents arrived.

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