Officials estimate earthquake's death toll at more than 35,000

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan -- Heavy rain and hail forced the cancellation of some relief flights to earthquake-stricken regions Tuesday and survivors scuffled over the badly needed food -- the first large-scale aid to make it overland to this devastated city. Officials estimated that the death toll would surpass 35,000.

In the latest of a series of remarkable rescues, emergency workers in the northern town of Balakot pulled a teenage boy from the rubble, 78 hours after Saturday's quake.

Two survivors, a 55-year-old woman and her 75-year-old mother, also were pulled from the rubble of a 10-story apartment building in Islamabad, 80 hours after they were buried. They did not appear to have suffered serious injuries.

A French search team on Monday rescued at least five children buried in a collapsed school in the northern town of Balakot, said Eric Supara, an official at the French Embassy in Islamabad.

Bob McKerrow, coordinator of relief efforts for the International Federation of the Red Cross, told CNN that "you can still keep some hope" for survivors trapped for five to seven days, although he cautioned that the cold and wet weather would also become a factor.

In Indian-controlled Kashmir, rescue workers Tuesday found the bodies of 60 road workers in a bus that was buried in a landslide during the quake, the army said. The bodies were cremated on funeral pyres beside the highway they were working on, officials said.

U.S. military helicopters, diverted from neighboring Afghanistan, helped ferry wounded from the wrecked city of Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-ruled Kashmir. International rescue teams joined the search for finding survivors. Teams of Britons, Germans and Turks used high-tech cameras to scan under piles of concrete, steel and wood.

Thousands of volunteers, some carrying picks and shovels, walked north toward quake-hit towns.

The worst-hit region was Kashmir, a divided Himalayan territory of about 10 million people claimed by both India and Pakistan. Islamic rebels opposed to Indian rule of its part of the largely Muslim region have fought a 15-year insurgency that has claimed more than 66,000 lives. India and Pakistan have fought two wars over Kashmir.

Bad weather compounded the misery in the region, with heavy rain and hail forcing some helicopters loaded with food and medicine to cancel or delay their flights.

That official toll in Pakistan remained at around 20,000 people, but a senior army official close to the rescue operations said government officials were estimating that between 35,000 and 40,000 died. The official asked not to be identified because he wasn't authorized to disclose the estimate to journalists.

Indian army spokesman J.S. Juneja said his country's death toll had risen to 1,460 with the discovery of the road workers buried in the landslide.

The U.S. Agency for International Development reported 33,180 dead in Pakistan, 865 dead in India and four dead in Afghanistan. citing its own, preliminary statistics.

The U.N. World Food Program said the first deliveries of food for 240,000 people will reach victims late Tuesday. Simon Pluess, a spokesman for the agency, said the WFP was prepared to feed 1 million people for a month.

U.N. officials also warned of a possible measles epidemic and the spread of waterborne diseases such as cholera and diarrhea, as the water and sanitation system is heavily damaged.

"Measles could potentially become a serious problem," said Fadela Chaib, spokeswoman for the World Health Organization. Measles is endemic in the region and just 60 percent of children, for whom the disease is often deadly, are protected. At least 90 percent coverage is needed to prevent an epidemic, the WHO said.

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

It was the first major influx of aid since the monster 7.6-magnitude quake struck, destroying most homes and all government buildings in the city, and leaving its 600,000 people without power or water. Most have spent three cold nights without shelter.

Two or three police 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 bottled water.

"Relief activity has started on a massive level," said deputy city commissioner Masood-ur Rehman. He said two army brigades would start clearing roads and debris in the city.

With winter just six weeks away, the United Nations said 2.5 million people in the worst-hit areas near the mountainous Pakistan-India border need shelter.

Pakistan army spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan said a total of 30 helicopters, including eight U.S. military choppers diverted from the war in Afghanistan, would be supplying food, water, medicine and other items to quake victims. Two more German and four Afghan helicopters were sent, he said.

Pentagon spokesman Larry Di Rita said that besides the eight helicopters, four more were en route. Within the next couple of days there likely would be 25 to 30 U.S. military helicopters sent to Pakistan, he said, from Afghanistan, Bahrain and other countries in the region.

Di Rita said the Pakistan government has asked the U.S. military mainly for heavy equipment like earthmoves, forklifts, bulldozers and trucks, in addition to tents, blankets and food. The U.S. military also is flying aerial reconnaissance missions to help the Pakistan government pinpoint areas for emergency supply deliveries, he said.

Even longtime foe India planned to send a planeload of food, tents and medicine after Pakistan set aside its often-bitter rivalry with its nuclear neighbor and said that it would accept New Delhi's aid. Islamabad, however, declined an offer of Indian helicopters.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described the earthquake in Kashmir as a national calamity, saying the government will spare no expense to help the survivors.

"Whatever is necessary, whatever is needed to rehabilitate, whatever is needed for relief, the central government stands committed to help," he said. Singh earlier announced another $111 million in assistance in addition to the $26 million already promised by his government for relief in the Himalayan territory.

President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said his government was doing its best to respond to the crisis.

"We are doing whatever is humanly possible," Musharraf said. "There should not be any blame game. We are trying to reach all those areas where people need our help."

Late Tuesday, a 5.1-magnitude quake rattled parts of southwestern Pakistan, causing people to rush out of their homes in panic. No casualties were reported.

Tremors were felt in the remote towns of Khuzdar and Sarrab, about 240 miles south of Quetta, said Mohammed Adnan of the meteorological department in Quetta.

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