Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Pakistan army leads rescue as death toll from Afghanistan earthquake rises

Roads and buildings destroyed by the earthquake in Swat, Pakistan. Photograph: ppiimages/Demotix/Corbis

Work begins to clear landslides and reach remote valleys amid fears casualties from Monday’s magnitude 7.5 quake could be higher in isolated regions

Pakistan has dispatched aircraft, road clearing teams and rescuers to some of the country’s most isolated valleys on Tuesday in the aftermath of a powerful earthquake that killed 311 people in the region.

A surveillance flight was ordered into the air to assess damage caused by the magnitude 7.5 quake in neighbouring Afghanistan, whilst a C-130 transport plane loaded with rations, ready meals, tents and blankets was dispatched to Chitral, a far-flung former princely state that was especially badly hit.

The prolonged tremors were some of the worst the region has experienced in recent years and were felt hundreds of miles away from the epicentre in Jurm, in north-east Afghanistan.

By mid-morning the army said its Frontier Works Organisation had cleared 27 out of 45 landslides that had blocked the Karakorum highway, the strategically valued road link to China that winds through some of the world’s most forbidding mountain terrain.

Small aftershocks that continued to shake the region have not done any further damage, but schools in the city of Rawalpindi were kept shut as a precautionary measure.

Pakistan’s powerful army has taken a lead role in responding to the crisis, with extra resources pushed out to its various hospitals in the affected region.

Pakistan has insisted that it does not require international assistance to cope with a disaster that caused a fraction of the damage of the devastating 2005 earthquake that killed nearly 80,000 Pakistanis and displaced millions more.

Seismologists say catastrophe was averted this time because the quake struck deep underground.

The rescue work will nonetheless be a challenge, with civilian officials warning the death toll is likely to rise rapidly as teams reach isolated areas, many of which were cut off by landslides and the failure of mobile phone networks.

Inayatullah Khnan, the minister for local government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the worst affected of Pakistan’s provinces, said he was receiving “bad news” from Upper Chitral, Dir and Shangla.

“The district officers in those areas have informed me there were many villages and buildings that got totally destroyed,” he said. “We are trying our best to utilise every facility we have and already have sent mobile ambulances carrying every facility of a hospital towards Upper Dir.”

The army said it had sent trucks carrying rations, tents and blankets to Dir.

Many areas had already been deluged by two days of unseasonably heavy rain and snowfall, helping to loosen the ground and trap tourists who had been visiting the beauty spots of the Gilgit-Baltistan region in Pakistan over the weekend.

For Afghanistan the challenge of mounting rescue operations will be made harder given the country’s relative lack of resources, difficult terrain and the presence of anti-government Taliban insurgents in some of the areas affected.

Afghan officials said at least 74 people were confirmed dead and hundreds more injured, with casualties reported from around half a dozen of the country’s 34 provinces.

The Kabul government has called for international aid agencies to send help.

The Taliban on Tuesday promised to pave access for aid organisations. “The Islamic Emirate [Taliban] calls on … charitable organisations to not hold back in providing shelter, food and medical supplies to the victims of this earthquake,” the group said on its website.

“It similarly orders its mujahideen in the affected areas to lend their complete help to the victims and facilitate those giving charity to the needy.”

Straddling an active continental plate boundary, the region is often hit by earthquakes. In September 2013, a 7.7 magnitude quake struck Balochistan province in Pakistan, killing about 800 people.

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