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Crackdown hampers earthquake relief in Pakistan

Photo courtesy AFP.
by Staff Writers
Ziarat, Pakistan (AFP) Dec 17, 2008
The closure of a Pakistan charity listed as a terrorist group has brought relief operations in some of the areas worst hit by October's devastating earthquake to a halt, local people say.

The government this week moved to shut down Jamaat-ud-Dawa, freezing its assets and placing its leader under house arrest, after the United Nations said it was a front for the group accused of orchestrating the Mumbai attacks.

Police padlocked the charity's offices across the country and arrested dozens of its workers, a move hailed by the international community which had pressed Pakistan to act against militants on its soil.

But it has also halted the charity's relief operations in this remote area of southwest Pakistan devastated by a massive earthquake in October.

"People are suffering because of the ban on Jamaat-ud-Dawa," Abdul Basir, mayor of the quake-hit town of Rod Mullazai in southwestern Baluchistan province, told AFP.

"They were engaged in relief work, they were helping the affected families by providing shelter, warm clothing and food to the homeless people."

Thousands of people are still living in tents after the 6.4-magnitude earthquake hit mountainous Baluchistan province in late October, killing about 300 people and flattening mud-brick homes.

Other charities and the Pakistan government are also working to help victims of the quake.

But Jammat-ud-Dawa's workers were among the first on the scene of the tragedy in October, finding favour in deeply conservative remote villages in the area by distributing food, medicine and shelter.

The charity had said it would build 600 new homes in the quake zone, but Basir said reconstruction work in his town had now been abandoned.

"The work was half finished, it is totally stopped now, and people are shivering in the extreme cold," he said.

Temperatures in the area have sunk below freezing in recent weeks and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani told parliament on Monday the government would ensure Jamaat-ud-Dawa's aid work continued, albeit under a different name.

But the district police chief in Ziarat, one of the main towns in the quake zone, said he had received no instructions to release relief supplies.

"We have kept the material in protective custody," said Tahir Alauddin. "Their warehouse is locked, nothing is coming in or going out. If the government gives fresh instructions, we will follow them."

Pakistan's government has said it had no choice but to act against Jamaat-ud-Dawa after the UN Security Council this week listed it as a front for Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the banned group India accuses over the attacks.

The charity is led by LeT founder Hafiz Saeed and the government has acknowledged historic links between the two groups, although Jamaat-ud-Dawa has repeatedly denied any involvement in terrorism.

But the charity's closure has proved highly unpopular in parts of Pakistan.

Around 70 people attended a weekend protest against the move in Quetta, the main town in Baluchistan, where Jamaat-ud-Dawa ran a camp for quake survivors.

"Thousands of quake victims were being fed at the Jamaat relief camp twice a day, and now it is closed," said protester Abdul Baseer.

The group was also active in Pakistani-administered Kashmir, which is still recovering from a massive 2005 earthquake, and where hundreds of people rallied outside the UN office last Friday chanting anti-US and anti-Indian slogans.

"Jamaat-ud-Dawa will not be harmed by this ban," earthquake survivor Matiullah told AFP in Ziarat. "But its impact on the quake-hit people of Ziarat will be severe."

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