Victims, Pakistan plead for aid

Earthquake's death toll climbs to 20,000

U.S. promises helicopters


BALAKOT, Pakistan -- President Pervez Musharraf pleaded for international help yesterday to hurry rescue equipment and relief supplies to tens of thousands of earthquake victims in Pakistan, while desperate survivors begged for government help that still had not arrived in large areas of the quake zone.

As the confirmed death toll climbed to 20,000, Musharraf asked the United States, Britain and other international donors to send heavy-lift helicopters, financial aid, medical supplies and tents after Saturday's magnitude-7.6 temblor.

The Pentagon promised delivery today of eight military helicopters from Afghanistan.

The helicopters, needed in part to get heavy equipment to rescuers working with little more than hand tools, may be too late for hundreds of children trapped in numerous collapsed schools across northern Pakistan. The quake struck about 8:50 a.m. Saturday as students were preparing for classes to begin.

At the ruins of the Shaheen Private School in the devastated northwestern town of Balakot, survivors exhausted from hours of trying to unearth students by hand listened helplessly yesterday as trapped children pleaded for rescue and struggled to survive under the rubble. Residents waited amid corpses covered by battered sheets of corrugated tin roofing and complained bitterly about the lack of outside help.

"They are alive, but we do not have the expertise to get them out," said a dejected woman sitting on the school's roof that lay across the rubble of walls shattered by the violent quake.

One resident said a child under the rubble had called out his name for two hours. Then there was silence.

Residents feared that more than 1,000 children were trapped in the debris of Shaheen and two other schools in Balakot, which was flattened by the quake's force.

Several people in the town, about 70 miles north of Islamabad, the capital, cursed the government for not reaching the trapped people of Balakot in time to save more lives.

"All we could see for the whole day is just two military helicopters," said Sajid Hussain, a local resident. "We whistled and waved to them, but they vanished."

The bodies of at least 400 children were recovered from two other destroyed schools in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province, where Balakot is located. Rescuers have been able to pull dozens of children out alive from some of the collapsed schools.

Two days after the quake, the scale of the disaster was still slowly unfolding as military rescue and relief teams in Pakistan and India struggled to overcome bad weather, avalanches, cracked roads and bridges, and towering mountains to reach devastated areas.

Across the earthquake zone yesterday, ruined towns and damaged roads slowed the rescue efforts and marked the new reality of life for tens of thousands of survivors.

Hundreds of thousands of people spent a chilly night under the open skies because their homes were damaged or they feared deadly aftershocks. Severe shortages of food and water were reported.

"Affected people have no shelter, no drinking water, no first aid, and aid agencies have yet to start activities," said Najeeb Ahmad, who has worked with relief organizations in the town of Abbottabad, about 35 miles south of Balakot. "I slept in my car because of the continuous aftershocks."

The regional Ayub Medical Complex in Abbottabad was inundated with an estimated 1,000 patients as doctors treated the injured in the hospital's outdoor compound. The town had been without power for two days.

By yesterday afternoon, the confirmed toll in Pakistan was at least 19,136 dead and 42,397 injured, Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao told reporters.

"It is such a horrendous situation that one cannot imagine," he said. "Casualties are increasing by the hour."

More than 465 people also died in India and four in Afghanistan, the Associated Press reported. The United Nations has estimated that more than 2.5 million people need shelter because of extensive damage caused by the quake.

Yesterday, President Bush invited the ranking Pakistani diplomat to the White House and spoke on the telephone with Musharraf, assuring him of U.S. support.

"I expressed our nation's deepest condolences," Bush said of his conversation with the Pakistani president. "And I told him that we want to help in any way we can. To that end, we've already started to send cash money and other equipment and goods that is going to be needed to help the people in Pakistan."

The statements came after Musharraf's plea for international help, which singled out the United States and Britain as having transport helicopters big enough to lift heavy equipment into vast, mountainous areas cut off by the quake.

"We can only go by roads, and roads also don't reach to every corner, so therefore it's only helicopter access that we have," the Pakistan president said during an interview with reporters in Rawalpindi, a suburb of the capital, Islamabad. "Things are not as simple as one would see in the West."

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