Aftershocks panic Pakistan

Landslides triggered as relief workers warn of many more deaths from disease, exposure

October 20, 2005|By CAROL J. WILLIAMS | CAROL J. WILLIAMS,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Three powerful aftershocks of the Oct. 8 earthquake triggered fresh landslides and panic across stricken northern Pakistan yesterday as relief workers warned that thousands more deaths from disease and exposure could occur among the 500,000 still stranded in mountain villages.

The new setbacks in getting aid to cold and injured survivors dampened spirits in the hardest-hit areas where a day earlier President Pervez Musharraf proposed opening the divided Kashmir to allow family contacts and better aid flows.

While even Pakistani militants seeking independence for the Indian-control portion of Kashmir hailed that appeal, it became obvious yesterday that crossings of the so-called Line of Control are weeks if not months away.

Damaged roads and bridges must be repaired before significant traffic could be permitted over the line, said Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam.

Asked how long it would take to allow family visits and aid deliveries, she said Pakistani authorities wanted the confidence-building measure in place "not in months but rather more quickly."

The first telephone calls in 15 years from the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir to relatives on the Pakistani side took place after four emergency call centers were opened yesterday by Indian authorities.

Aslam said Islamabad also was pushing to extend its mobile phone network to Indian-controlled Kashmir, sparing Kashmiris there the need to travel to the phone centers to call their relatives. Much of the fixed-line network was destroyed by the earthquake, while many Kashmiris on the Pakistani side have functioning mobile phones.

On the Indian side, analysts warned that the earthquake's dividend of more humanitarian contact could quickly evaporate if leaders of the rival nations succumb to "bureaucratic detailing."

"Everyone would say that this is desirable," said Amitabh Mattoo, vice chancellor of Jammu University in Indian-held Kashmir and an expert on the conflict. "I want to see this line of division become a line of peace."

But he noted that the two sides have little framework to build on after 58 years of holding to entrenched and irreconcilable positions.

Leaders of Kashmiri independence factions, including the All Parties Hurriyat Conference and the United Jihad Council, threw their support behind the notion of easing border controls and urged New Delhi and Islamabad to dismantle the bureaucratic barriers separating Kashmiris. Syed Salahuddin, head of the council, said allowing contact across the Line of Control would strengthen the autonomy movement.

India and Pakistan have laid rival claims to Kashmir since they separated after gaining independence from Britain in 1947 and have fought two wars over the region.

Meanwhile, relief operations were hampered by the strong aftershocks that sent hillsides cascading across newly cleared roadways into Balakot and Mansehra, two of the most devastated Pakistani towns in need of massive aid shipments.

The jolts, including a 5.8-magnitude aftershock at 7:34 a.m., triggered a stampede at a primary school in Kohat, in North-West Frontier Province, in which several children were injured. Authorities then closed most schools in the region as students were too frightened to re-enter the damaged buildings, witnesses reported. A 5.6-magnitude aftershock hit the region at 8:15 a.m., and another strong tremor was felt just after sunset, when Muslims were breaking their daily fast held in observance of the holy season of Ramadan.

Local authorities in the hardest-hit areas revised their estimates of the quake's toll, reporting that the number of deaths in the North-West Frontier Province and both sides of divided Kashmir have reached nearly 80,000. The province's information minister, Asif Iqbal Daudzai, said 24,482 more bodies had been recovered from villages around Mansehra in the past 24 hours.

Carol J. Williams writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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