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Aftershock rattles Pakistan as disease spreads among survivors

Photo courtesy AFP.
by Staff Writers
Wam, Pakistan (AFP) Nov 1, 2008
A strong aftershock rattled southwestern Pakistan Saturday, as aid agencies warned that disease had begun to spread among tens of thousands of earthquake survivors waiting for relief supplies.

The 5.0-magnitude quake struck just before 6am in the mountainous province of Baluchistan, where a powerful pre-dawn tremor on Wednesday killed up to 300 people and left 70,000 people homeless.

There were no immediate reports of further casualties or damage as a result of the latest aftershock, the second strongest of more than 250 tremors to have shaken the region since Wednesday's quake.

Aid has begun reaching devastated villages, but angry villagers in remote areas said they desperately needed shelter, with thousands of people whose mud-brick homes were flattened sleeping in the open in freezing temperatures.

The UN Children's Fund said Friday they and Pakistani government officials assessed the situation in the worst-hit districts and were "concerned about the urgent needs of children and women".

"With winter closing in, the most urgent needs of the survivors are shelter, safe drinking water, food, warm clothing and emergency medical assistance," a UNICEF statement said.

Clean water was a "priority," it said, adding that children were especially vulnerable to diseases such as diarrhoea and cholera.

The district health officer of the stricken hill town of Ziarat, Ayub Kakar, told AFP that children were already suffering from exposure to the harsh conditions.

"Due to the cold hundreds of children are being treated for pneumonia, abdominal diseases, diarrhoea and chest problems," he said.

"We fear the death toll will rise. Such diseases, if not treated in time, are life-threatening," Kakar said.

Children could be seen running after cars on the road adjoining the affected areas begging for food and drink, witnesses said.

Residents in the quake-hit village of Khanozai, near Ziarat, blocked the main road in protest at the lack of relief goods despite government pledges to help them, an AFP reporter saw.

"Our children are dying, help us," cried Mohammad Khan, the owner of an apple orchard.

In another village, Ahmadoon, people said they were making tents from scavenged clothing.

"No one from the government has so far inquired about our welfare," said Allah Noor, a teacher.

"Our children could not sleep during the night because of the cold and continued tremors shaking the mountains. People do not go to their damaged houses even to take out food because they fear more tremors," Noor said.

Military and paramilitary troops have provided more than 2,000 tents and 15 tonnes of food rations, Major General Mohammed Khan said, adding more would arrive in the coming days, but warned that reconstruction could take months.

Islamist militant groups found favour in remote villages, distributing food, medicine and shelter.

One of them, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, has been listed by the United States as a "terrorist organisation" because it is the political wing of the outlawed Kashmiri militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba.

The organisation was also among the first on the scene after the 2005 earthquake in northern Pakistan that killed 73,000 people.

A Jamaat-ud-Dawa volunteer, who gave his name as Abu Abdullah, insisted however that they were not playing politics at a time of suffering and vulnerability.

"We believe in serving people," said the 40-year-old, a veteran of the mujahideen insurgency against the Soviet army in Afghanistan in the 1980s and the Kashmir conflict, told AFP.

"We are not doing any politics here and we are making every effort to provide relief to the survivors."

earlier related report
Militant groups provide relief to Pakistan quake victims
Islamist militants have been distributing food, medicine and shelter in quake-hit southwest Pakistan, finding their strong faith an advantage in this deeply conservative region.

Volunteers, including veterans of bitter conflicts in Afghanistan and Kashmir, were welcomed by villagers in remote areas of mountainous Baluchistan, amid suspicion of "outside" agencies also working on the relief effort.

One of the groups, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, has been listed by the United States as a "terrorist organisation" because it is the political wing of the outlawed Kashmiri militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba.

But the group, which has been on the scene since the 6.4-magnitude quake struck on Wednesday, insist they are not playing politics at a time of dire need and vulnerability.

"We believe in serving people," one Jamaat-ud-Dawa volunteer who gave his name as Abu Abdullah told AFP. "We are not doing any politics here and we are making every effort to provide relief to the survivors."

Abdullah, 40, said he left his job as a teacher to fight in Afghanistan for the mujahideen against the Soviet army in the late 1980s and spent six months smuggling people across the Kashmir border between India and Pakistan in 1993.

He also volunteered in the relief operation after the devastating 2005 earthquake in northern Pakistan which killed 74,000 people.

Jamaat-ud-Dawa has set up five camps of 50 tents in Wam, one of the villages worst affected by the quake. They immediately recruited 100 volunteers, including 30 doctors and paramedics, to help survivors, he said.

As in 2005, they have been working in remote areas that government agencies and non-governmental organisations had yet to reach, handing out blankets to stave off sub-zero temperatures, dried fruit, milk and tents.

"We are arranging food for 5,000 people three times a day," he said, estimating that at least 25,000 people have been sleeping in the open air since their mud-brick, straw-roofed houses were flattened.

"People cooperate with us because we are religious people and they believe in our charity," he added.

For the first day after the quake, groups like Jamaat-ud-Dawa filled a vacuum left by what residents said was the government's failure to provide immediate aid.

With Baluchistan already a simmering cauldron of separatist tribal unrest and Taliban militant violence, local newspapers warned in editorials that further discontent with the authorities in Islamabad could be dangerous.

Non-militant linked hardline organisations are also handing out aid in the province, including leading religious party Jamaat-e-Islami.

Jamaat-e-Islami was formerly part of an alliance of Islamist parties, including some which openly supported the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and are harshly critical of Pakistan's ties with the United States.

One local volunteer, Mohammad Saleem, told AFP: "We have provided people with food, blankets and tents. The thing most people want is tents, which are scarce in the area.

"We are trying to get more and more tents. We have food, medicines and our own medical teams, which are organised by our subsidiary relief agency, Al-Khidmat," he said.

"People are very distressed. The relief activities are very limited. This area is very cold, so despite the provision of food, children are falling ill and it will take a lot of time to reach these children."

Labourer Nasrullah, 30, lives in a remote village near Wam. His six-year-old daughter, Aasia, was badly injured in the quake but was now receiving treatment by Jamaat-ud-Dawa medics -- after initially being cautious of their help.

"We were shy to expose our women to these people because there were no women doctors. But when they convinced us, we were inspired by their religious beliefs," he said. "They said they were serving humanity.

"We are happy. At least someone approached us and treated our women and children."

Another man, Mohammad Hussein, 54, added: "I don't see anyone else coming here to do politics. They have come here to help us and they are all our brothers."

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