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Quake in Pakistan: The sequel

By B Raman
Last updated on: October 12, 2005 15:24 IST
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The government and the people of Pakistan have been coping, as best as they can, with the colossal tragedy which struck them on October 8 in the form of a massive earthquake which has devastated practically the whole of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and large parts of the district of Manshera and other areas  in the North-West Frontier Province.

Islamabad was also affected, but mildly, with the collapse of only one multi-storey building.

Total fatalities in POK are officially estimated at 20,000 plus, and unofficially at 30,000 plus. Those in the NWFP at 3,000 plus and unofficially at 8,000 plus.

In an interview from a tent in which he has been staying at Muzaffarabad, capital of POK, since the quake, Sikander Hayat Khan, prime minister of POK, said on October 10, 'I am the prime minister of a graveyard, surveying the ruined capital from a tent where I have slept since a weekend earthquake destroyed towns and villages. It's the biggest natural disaster. It has totally paralysed Kashmir. For the first two days, we have been either digging the ground to recover bodies or digging to bury them. Kashmir has turned into a graveyard.'

The only minister in the POK government known to have been killed in the quake is Shireen Waheed, who was killed along with 14 members of her family.

Complete coverage: Tremors across borders

In a despatch from Muzaffarabad, Naveed Ahmad, correspondent of The News (October 11, 2005) said: 'Muzaffarabad is a ghost town, a 21st century reminder to the World War II blitzkrieg. The city is now set for an epidemic, no less. With the entire suburban population heading to the town in hope of relief, more danger of disease is at hand with some 20,000 bodies decaying underneath the rubble and over countless injured living in the worst unhygienic conditions. As if this was not enough, the migrant inhabitants and the worried relatives are rushing back after the opening of the roads to the place once called Muzaffarabad with hopes of  seeing  their loved ones and settling  in their abandoned homes.'

Major-Gen Shaukat Sultan, spokesman of the Pakistan Armed Forces, told pressmen: 'It is a whole generation that has been lost in the worst affected areas. The maximum number affected was schoolchildren. Rescuers are pulling out dead children in Muzaffarabad, but there is no one to claim the bodies, which shows their parents are also dead. Rawalakot has been destroyed. Muzaffarabad is 70 per cent destroyed. There is not a single house in Muzaffarabad which has not suffered damage. There is not a single family there that has not suffered.' He added that the Pakistan Army had lost over 300 soldiers and over 500 were injured in the affected areas.

The devastation in NWFP was severe too, but not as severe as in POK. According to a despatch by Rahimullah Yusufzai, the well-known and well-informed correspondent of The News, military, civil and police officials monitoring the situation in the quake-affected northern districts in NWFP reported 3,198 confirmed deaths and injuries to another 4,856. It included 1,500 deaths and injuries to 4,000 in Manshera district and a death toll of 1,100 in Battagram along with 300 injured persons. Abbottabad was next with 230 deaths and 200 injured, followed by Shangla with 222 dead  and injuries to 182. Kohistan reported 131 deaths and 45 injured. The official  toll in Swat was seven deaths and 47 injured while four persons died and 19 sustained injuries in Buner. Peshawar suffered three deaths and nine injured and Haripur had one dead. There were no quake-related deaths in other districts with Mardan reporting injuries to 22 people, followed by Charsadda and Nowshera with 20 and 12 injured  respectively.

Images: The day after

Eight heavy-lifting US helicopters from Afghanistan flew into Pakistan within 36 hours of an appeal issued by President Pervez Musharraf to the international community. It has been reported that the helicopters could have flown in even earlier and joined the rescue efforts, but there was a delay because of reservations reportedly expressed by some senior Pakistani Army officers over the advisability of allowing American pilots to fly the copters. Ultimately, Musharraf overruled their objections and it was decided that the copters would be flown by US pilots. A Pakistani Foreign Office spokesperson said: 'These helicopters would be flown by American crew members as is the case with the other ones that are helping out. The nationality of the crew is not an issue.'

Among the countries which have responded to Musharraf's appeal and rushed relief teams and assistance are Germany, the UK, France, Turkey, Jordan, China, Japan, Spain, Russia, the US and Saudi Arabia. According to a Pakistan Foreign Office  spokesperson, some foreign nationals (number not yet known) have died in the earthquake, including a Chinese worker in Kohistan and an Egyptian in Islamabad.

India was the first to offer assistance even before Musharraf made his appeal for assistance to the international community. It has been reported that India had offered relief teams and supplies, helicopters and cross-Line of Control medical teams to be sent on foot to Muzaffarabad, which is just 40 minutes by road from  the LOC, but over three hours from Islamabad. Pakistan took three days to decide on the Indian offer. On October 10 it decided to accept one plane-load of relief supplies, but rejected India's offer of helicopters and cross-LOC medical teams. Musharraf has admitted in an interview with foreign journalists that the hesitation by Pakistan in accepting the Indian offer was due to the 'political sensitivities' involved.

However, Sikander Hayat Khan, prime minister of POK, welcomed India's offers of help as a positive sign for the peace process with Pakistan, but added: 'They offered us help on humanitarian grounds and I hope there should be no politics involved in it.'

Not Army, not government, Hurriyat gives out aid

Muzaffarabad and the Manshera district of NWFP, which were at the epicentre of the quake, have also been for many years the epicentre for international jihadi terrorism. The Jaish-e-Mohammad and the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, both members of Osama bin Laden's International Islamic Front, had their jihadi training infrastructure in Manshera district, particularly in Balakot, which is reported to have been totally destroyed by the quake. In the beginning of this year, the Al Qaeda too had shifted one of its training camps from the Waziristan area of the Federally-administered Tribal Areas to Manshera. There were also unconfirmed reports that bin  Laden had taken up residence in Manshera district. The LET and the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, which are also members of the IIF, had their training infrastructure in Muzaffarabad. The United Jihad Council headed by Syed Salahuddin of the Hizbul Mujahideen, an indigenous Kashmiri terrorist organisation with no known links to the Al Qaeda or the IIF, was also operating from Muzaffarabad.

No estimate is available of the damages suffered by these terrorist organisations as a result of the quake. Many  foreign nationals from Indonesia, Thailand, the US, the UK and other countries were reportedly  undergoing training in the camps in Manshera district. Only the LET has so far admitted that its infrastructure in POK has been severely damaged. A spokesman for the Jamat-ud-Dawa, the political wing of the LET, admitted at Islamabad on October 8 that  mosques, hospitals, schools and madrasas run by the LET in POK were destroyed by the quake. He added: 'Many of our members have been killed. They are in scores while several others are still trapped under the rubble.'

Afraid that foreign rescue teams might discover the dead bodies of foreign terrorists killed by the quake in Manshera, the Pakistani military has reportedly barred civilian rescue teams from working in certain areas where these terrorists had been kept. This has been strongly criticised by some political leaders, including Qazi Hussain Ahmed, Amir of the Jamaat-e-Islami.  

The POK-based United Jihad Council has announced that it would suspend its operations in the earthquake-hit areas of Jammu and Kashmir. A statement issued by it on October 9 said: 'Syed Salahudin has directed UJC cadres to halt their operations in the affected areas.' Before the issue of this announcement, unidentified terrorists  shot dead five members of two Hindu families in the southern district of Rajouri on October 9. The same day, another group of terrorists clashed with an Indian Army patrol in Gulmarg area. Eight of the terrorists were reportedly killed in the ensuing exchange of fire.

The Taliban and the Al Qaeda remnants operating from Pakistan have sought to convey an impression that the quake has not affected their capability for operations inside Afghanistan. One Salimullah Khan Mujahid, who now projects himself as the spokesman of the Taliban after the recent arrest of Latifullah Hakimi, his predecessor, by Pakistani security forces, claimed on October 10 that Taliban  fighters hit a US helicopter with anti-aircraft rockets in the eastern Nuristan province. This is the third instance this year in which the Taliban has claimed to have shot down US helicopters. The US military command in Afghanistan has so far confirmed only one of these claims. There were unconfirmed reports that a US military spokesperson had also confirmed a second claim.

Speaking from an undisclosed location, Salimullah Khan Mujahid claimed that in the latest incident the US military helicopter caught fire after being hit by rockets shortly before noon. However, he said he was unaware of any casualties. He also claimed responsibility for the assassination of pro-Afghan government commander Aqil Shah alias Agha Shah and four of his  men by a suicide bomber on October 10 in Kandahar city. He said nine other supporters of the slain commander were wounded in the attack.

According to reliable Pakistani sources, five terrorists belonging to the International Islamic Front, one of them a Pakistani national and two Chinese (Uighurs) nationals, were killed in a clash with the Afghan security forces in the Zabul area on October 10. The same day, there were  two suicide explosions in Kandahar, which  killed six people and wounded eight others. One American soldier was killed and another wounded by the Taliban in the Zabul province on October 9.

In POK and NWFP, there has been considerable criticism of the slow response of Islamabad to the tragedy. It remains to be seen whether the tragedy would weaken Musharraf's position. He has always projected himself as a super-competent military commander, who acts fast and effectively. These qualities were not evident in the first few hours after the quake struck.

Would the terrorist remnants attack the foreign relief teams, particularly US helicopters? It seems unlikely because of the adverse impact it could have on public opinion in the affected areas. But, still, one has to be on guard.

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B Raman