Top US general visits Pakistan quake zone as aid trickles in


MUZAFFARABAD. (AFP) - New aftershocks rattled quake-hit northern Pakistan as aid trickled into the mountainous region and relief agencies struggled to reach cut-off survivors before winter.

Hours after the 4.9-magnitude tremors, US Central Command chief General John Abizaid toured devastated areas of Pakistan-administered Kashmir and promised more US military assistance in the relief effort. His visit came ahead of a meeting of aid donors in Geneva on Wednesday where the United States is expected to push for a greater international response to help US-ally Pakistan cope with the worst disaster in its history. "We've seen a lot of helicopters from a lot of differenct countries and we've been in the area and seen a lot of hard work by the Pakistani military ... " Abizaid told reporters on Sunday. "So we're bringing in as much as we can. I know that NATO forces will be coming and certainly we're bringing more forces from the US, more helicopters." Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and UN relief chiefs have called for more helicopters, winter tents, blankets, food and medicine for earthquake survivors, thousands of whom remain cut-off in the Kashmiri mountains. The earthquake killed more than 53,000 people, injured some 75,000 and left another 3.3 million homeless in Pakistan, according to Pakistani estimates. Some 1,300 people died on the Indian side of divided Kashmir. Abizaid said two more US heavy-lift helicopters had arrived in Pakistani Kashmir on Sunday, having been diverted from military operations in neighbouring Afghanistan. Another 13 were "coming forward" from Afghanistan, he said, which would bring the number of US choppers involved in the relief effort to 25 out of about 70 in total. But the UN relief coordinator in Muzaffarabad said the world was only just "coming to grips" with the catastrophe and more choppers were urgently needed. "Two weeks after the earthquake that devastated this region countless thousands (of people) need to be reached in high-altitude terrain," Rashid Khalikov, the UN humanitarian aid area coordinator, told reporters. "In the first few days after the earthquake the world clearly did not comprehend the magnitude and complexity of the disaster." Before dawn Sunday an aftershock measuring 4.9 on the Richter scale was felt in Mansehra town, which has become a refuge for thousands of survivors from more badly devastated towns and villages. There were no immediate reports of casualties from the latest tremor, one of more than 700 which have shaken the region since the 7.6-magnitude October 8 quake. But at least five people were reportedly killed when a quake struck neighbouring eastern Afghanistan around dawn, the Afghan defence ministry said. "We don't know exactly the scale of the damage. Afghan National Army troops are on the ground helping villagers," ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zahir Azimi said. As helicopter aid flights resumed over the Himalayan foothills of Pakistani Kashmir in clear skies, more choppers from the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) were on the way. The alliance, a military grouping which has been reluctant to take on humanitarian missions, pledged Saturday to boost the relief effort with some 1,000 troops and a small number of choppers. Pakistan and India, nuclear-armed rivals which have fought two wars over Kashmir, also moved Saturday to coordinate the aid effort more closely on both sides of the disputed Kashmiri frontier. Islamabad made a formal proposal for two-way movement of Kashmiris across the de facto border, or Line of Control, while New Delhi announced plans to set up three relief centres on the highly militarised frontier. Indian army spokesman Vijay Batra said mules and helicopters would ensure the relief camps for survivors from the Pakistan zone of the divided region were operational by Tuesday, as long as the Pakistani government agreed. "All the three centers can be made operational in time despite damaged roads and bridges," Batra said, adding that roads were being repaired on a "war footing". UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has warned that thousands more people could die unless aid arrives before the bitter winter descends in the next few weeks.

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