U.S. to continue helicopter relief missions through winter in Pakistan

The U.S. military promised Tuesday it will keep flying helicopter relief missions to help victims of the devastating earthquake in northern Pakistan through the winter and urged other nations to sustain their support as frigid weather starts to close in.

Pakistan's army said it can't predict when a key road in Kashmir would be reopened because of recurrent landslides, complicating plans to get supplies to the hundreds of thousands of people without shelter, some of them already facing subzero temperatures in upland villages.

Clouds rolled in above the mountains surrounding the region's main city, Muzaffarabad, on Tuesday and nighttime temperatures were forecast to dip to around 7 degrees Celsius (44 degrees Fahrenheit). Snow was expected in villages above 3,353 meters (11,000 feet), with temperatures as low as minus 12 Celsius (10 F) in the highest settlements.

With the brutal Himalayan winter approaching, the relief effort is rushing to deliver tents, food and medicine to victims of the Oct. 8 quake before villages are cut off by snow and helicopter-grounding fog. About 80,000 people are believed to have died in the 7.6-magnitude temblor, and the U.N. has warned that thousands more could die without adequate aid.

Rear Adm. Mike LeFever, commander of the U.S. disaster assistance center near the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, said the U.S. military would not cut back its current deployment of helicopters for the relief effort. Currently, 29 American choppers are in action, mostly heavy-lifting Chinooks.

"We are not going to diminish our helicopter support. This is long-term support. We are going to be standing by our friends, and we expect the other international communities to be able to do that," he told reporters during a visit to Muzaffarabad on Tuesday.

LeFever stressed the importance of supporting the aid effort "throughout the winter months that are coming."

He said in the coming days, a U.S. military construction battalion would be establishing a helicopter refueling center at Muzaffarabad airfield with a capacity of 50,000 gallons (190,000 liters) of purified gasoline. The center will mean that choppers will not have to keep making shuttle flights to the main air base at the garrison city of Rawalpindi, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) to the southwest.

Helicopters have proved crucial for ferrying supplies and recovering injured people in towns and villages cut off by landslides, and are likely to remain so in the months ahead.


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