MUZAFFARABAD. (AFP) - The search for survivors in quake-hit Pakistan was being abandoned as rescuers battling blocked roads and a shortage of helicopters focused on getting aid to remote mountain villages.
In Muzaffarabad, the devastated capital of Pakistani Kashmir, army spokesman Major Farooq Nasir said the chances of finding anyone alive in the rubble were very slim, and that operations had moved to a recovery phase.
Bulldozers moved in to begin clearing the piles of wreckage although in the capital Islamabad, Pakistan's chief military spokesman insisted there was still hope and that the search would continue.
Rescue teams who rushed to Pakistan from around the world in the days after the quake were also packing up their equipment, knowing it was nearly impossible for people to live so long in the rubble and the cold.
The focus was turning instead to the urgent need to bring food, clothing and shelter to an estimated 2.5 million people made homeless by Saturday's monster quake, which hit just as winter closes in on the Himalayas.
The UN's top emergency aid official Jan Egeland said after touring the disaster zone that the devastation was "beyond belief."
He said authorities faced a nightmare scenario in one of the world's most rugged regions, with many of the roads destroyed and not enough helicopters to reach the millions left hungry and without shelter.
"We're still racing against the clock and we need to get more helicopters, more water, more tents and more money," he said.
"This is a desperate situation. As you can see we are making progress in the more populated areas, but it is so hard to reach the others."
Pakistan's disaster response chief also issued a grim warning that many desperate survivors would not receive help before bitter weather closes in on the Himalayas, and snow and ice forces deliveries to a halt.
"It is not possible to provide shelter to all the affected people before the winter approaches," said Major General Farooq Javed, adding that despite the outpouring of aid from some 30 countries there was still a dire need for more blankets and tents.
Javed said it would take "many years to say the least" to rebuild northeast Pakistan, where entire towns and villages were obliterated by the quake, which killed at least 25,000 in Pakistan and over 1,300 in India.
To prepare for the millions of people displaced in the disaster, Pakistan has begun setting up tent villages in its major cities, in a sad reminder of the Afghan refugee camps here in the 1980s.
As donated helicopters begin operating in the quake zone and troops clear landslides blocking the mountain passes, aid is beginning to arrive in cities like Muzaffarabad and Balakot that bore the brunt of the disaster.
But the distribution system is chaotic, triggering ugly scuffles among survivors, and Pakistani troops face immense hurdles in hauling supplies to remote villages that are barely accessible even by helicopter.
Villagers have begun pouring out of the mountains, many carrying injured relatives, to try to find help in once-bustling major towns where basic field hospitals and relief points have been set up.
The hardship has been compounded by a series of powerful aftershocks that triggered panic on both sides of the heavily militarised Line of Control that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan.
On the Muslim holy day, there were prayers for the victims of the quake, and for those who have spent so many nights out in the cold and wet facing a shortage of relief supplies.
Stumbling into Muzaffarabad after walking for hours in seach of food, water and medicine, victims told harrowing tales of the destruction in their home villages.
"There were 100 houses and they were all demolished. Not one is left," said Gulzman, an 80-year-old man from Petehka, a village south of here where people from the surrounding hills would come in to work, shop and go to school.
"The schools crumbled down on 3,000 schoolchildren and 1,000 high schoolers. None of them could escape," he said.
Ashiq Hussain, a 50-year-old teacher, said there was also a desperate struggle for life in his village of Balgran, where some 300 bodies were found under the rubble.
"There aren't any shelters or blankets. The women and children cry at night. They cry every day. If we don't get tents and supplies, the entire village is going to die of hunger and cold," he said.
The World Health Organisation has also warned that measles, malaria and other diseases are likely to erupt among survivors living in crowded and dirty conditions unless supplies of clean water are urgently delivered.