Bulldozers race to clear way for relief trucks after Pakistan quake

Helicopters aren't the only machines that could make a difference between life and death for the millions of homeless survivors of South Asia's monster earthquake.

Bulldozers driven by Pakistani soldiers are working around the clock to clear roads to hundreds of villages that have been cut off by landslides. They risk being buried alive under loose earth as they scramble to make way for relief trucks to get in before the harsh Himalayan winter sets in.

The Oct. 8 earthquake paralyzed a vast swath of northern Pakistan. In mountainous Kashmir, about 5,000 army engineers and troops are now reconstructing bridges, removing debris and rebuilding sections of highways that were swept away.

"Helicopters can't provide relief goods to everybody, but if roads are intact you can," said engineering corps Col. Mohammed Raza.

NATO is set to help from next week with up to 1,000 troops, including engineers, who will help clear roads and keep them open in the winter, and with at least six helicopters for transporting heavy equipment.

An example of the Herculean task that awaits them can be found at Nisar Camp, just four kilometers (2.5 miles) from the city of Muzaffarabad.

When the temblor struck, a chunk of forested mountainside tumbled into the Neelum River there, sweeping away dozens of homes and blocking a key route to the town of Chinari. Officials and residents said many more villagers have died since, slipping into the deep valley when they tried to negotiate past the landslide.

Army bulldozer operator Mohammed Hassan almost joined them Friday when another tide of earth suddenly swept down the mountainside _ one of many landslides triggered in the past two weeks by heavy rains and frequent aftershocks.

"I thought I was going to die," he said.

His bulldozer was half-buried and his legs engulfed in mud, but luckily no boulders tumbled down the slope as well.

By Saturday, the 32-year-old soldier was back at the wheel of the bulldozer, trying to clear the vast mound of earth and rock from the same route.

"This road is a lifeline for us. Please open it," said Bashir Khan, a 49-year-old polio sufferer, whose village lies just down the road and can now only reachable by a mule track.

With winter closing in, opening roads to isolated communities is essential for making the enormous, international aid effort work.

Some 65 helicopters are making relief flights and ferrying the injured from remote villages to hospitals. Mule trains are also moving into the mountains, bringing in supplies where choppers can't land.

But relief workers say most of the vast quantities of tents, food and other vital provisions needed to sustain the estimated 3.3 million homeless through the winter need to be moved by road.

Pakistan's top relief official, Maj. Gen. Farooq Ahmed Khan, said Saturday that unblocking roads was "crucial." He said progress was "encouraging" with 11 main roads already reopened in Kashmir and neighboring North West Frontier Province.

Yet weeks more work is needed. One senior army official said that in Pakistan's part of Kashmir about half of the highways and feeder roads are still blocked. He declined to be named as he wasn't authorized to speak to journalists.

Another official involved in road-clearing, Brig. Inam ul-Haq, said the immediate goal was to open all roads before heavy snows start in December.

On Friday, a 60-foot (20-meter) span over a mountain ravine was reopened on the road from Muzaffarabad to Chakothi _ a strategic town on the disputed border with India.

Hundreds of vehicles trundled across it Saturday, on their way to mournful reunions with relatives they haven't seen since the quake.

Among the travelers to Chakothi was Raja Akas, driving in a car with six family members. He said he was happy the bridge was back up, but sad about the prospect of what he'd fine on the other side.

"We couldn't attend the funerals of our relatives. I don't know how many of them are alive and how many are dead. I'm going there to see what's happened to them," he said, AP reported. V.A.

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