Relief operations for millions of earthquake survivors swung into gear Wednesday as the skies cleared and helicopters laden with food and shelter began thundering in to devastated northeast Pakistan.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was due later Wednesday to arrive in Pakistan to inspect the devastation after Saturday's earthquake which killed at least 23,000 people and left millions more homeless, hungry and cold.
"I do want to affirm with the Pakistani people that the international community and the US are with them in this terrible time," said Rice, who is in Afghanistan as part of a tour of Central Asia.
The rains that lashed northeast Pakistan Tuesday, halting crucial airlifts and aid deliveries, have dried up but the misery continued for some 2.5 million homeless survivors who are in desperate need of help as winter arrives.
"That was the fourth night we slept in the open," said Khurshid Bibi, pointing to her family of 15 camped on the roadside outside their collapsed house in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan's side of divided Kashmir.
"We were very, very cold. We need tents and blankets," she said after waking up to see snow had fallen on the peaks surrounding the ruined city of 125,000 which has been reduced to piles of crushed concrete.
Pakistan has appealed for international aid including helicopters to respond to the catastrophe, the worst natural disaster in the country's history, which obliterated whole towns and villages.
"We are bringing in food, blankets, tents, and rescue teams. The weather has cleared so we're going full ahead now with the relief operations," Pakistani army spokesman Major Farooq Nasir said in Muzaffarabad which bore the brunt of the 7.6-magnitude quake.
Eight United States choppers have been diverted to Pakistan from military operations in Afghanistan and the Pentagon said that up to 30 eventually could be sent in a major boost to the relief effort.
US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns has also called for Washington's NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) allies in Afghanistan to pitch in.
"It is certainly our strong hope that those allies step up with the provision of equipment especially," he said, noting that Pakistan needed earth-moving equipment and choppers which are vital for reaching remote areas.
Pakistan said the death toll from Saturday's quake has hit 23,000, although relief agencies believe when the rubble is cleared and more bodies are found the toll could rise as high as 40,000. Another 60,000 have been injured.
On the Indian side of divided Kashmir, officials said the death toll had hit 1,300 with 40,720 homes completely destroyed and another 10 villages still cut off.
Indian troops were also battling rain and snow to deliver aid to tens of thousands of survivors on its side of the de facto border of Kashmir, traversing the mountainous region with tents and food.
Towns and villages across northern Pakistan and parts of Kashmir have turned into makeshift refugee camps, with shocked survivors huddling under whatever they can find as they wait for aid that many say has been too slow coming.
But on Wednesday the thumping twin-rotors of giant US army Chinook helicopters could be heard over Muzaffarabad from shortly after sunrise, bringing vital relief to the worst-hit regions.
The search for survivors is also continuing even as hopes fade that anyone could have remained alive for so long beneath the rubble of destroyed schools and homes.
"For now we are concentrating on search and rescue. We're coordinating with the Pakistani army as to when relief distribution will begin," said a spokesman for UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination here.
"Whole cities have been annihilated," he said late Tuesday. "It's a mammoth exercise in logistics, it's a mammoth exercise in coordination, it's a mammoth exercise in every respect of human endurance."
The United Nations has issued a "flash appeal" for more than 270 million dollars to add to the hundreds of millions already pledged by the international community.
India, Pakistan's longtime rival, sent 25 tonnes of supplies Wednesday in the first such aid delivery in decades which analysts say bodes well for the fledgling peace process between the nuclear neighbours.All rights reserved. © 2005 Agence France-Presse. Sections of the information displayed on this page (dispatches, photographs, logos) are protected by intellectual property rights owned by Agence France-Presse. As a consequence, you may not copy, reproduce, modify, transmit, publish, display or in any way commercially exploit any of the content of this section without the prior written consent of Agence France-Presse.