Pakistan and India: heavy rains threaten earthquake relief efforts

Torrential downpours Sunday threatened to cause crucial delays in quake relief efforts in the Himalayan region of Kashmir, where only a fraction of the tents needed for an estimated 2.3 million people left homeless have been provided as winter nears.

In the town of Bagh, one of the areas worst hit by Oct. 8's massive 7.6-magnitude quake, heavy rains began falling overnight. Relief workers have not been able to provide enough temporary shelter for town residents, let alone the refugees that have streamed in from the mountains seeking aid.

Only 18,000 tents have been distributed so far in the entire region, Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said Saturday. The country's relief commissioner, Maj. Gen. Farooq Ahmad Khan, said earlier that 100,000 were needed.

President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said Saturday that the death toll from the earthquake had risen sharply to 38,000, with 62,000 others injured, and warned that the numbers could jump still higher as relief teams reach more villages in the endless folds of the Himalayan mountains.

With temperatures down to 8 degrees Celsius (46 degrees F), the hard-hit town of Balakot became a rain-soaked nightmare for victims streaming in from nearby villages seeking help from aid groups.

Prime Minister Aziz made it clear that shelter was now the priority. "We need tents, tents, tents and prefab housing," he told reporters.

Aziz also said officials were planning an international donors' conference to be held within the next week in Geneva.

While U.N. officials have estimated the reconstruction would take 10 years, "we think it would be faster," Aziz said.

Pakistan's Interior Ministry on Saturday ordered that visas be granted free-of-charge to all relief workers and doctors coming to help for the next three months. Already 2,873 emergency personnel from 61 countries have flooded in, the ministry said.

Overnight rains also prevented troops from getting relief to the three villages still cut off in the Indian-controlled portion of the divided Kashmir region, where some 1,350 people have died, officials said.

Indian army soldiers on foot were trying to reach Taad, Shararat and Vayu _ all at least 10,000 feet up in the Himalayas said V.V. Vyas, a top provincial official overseeing relief work, reported AP.

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