U.S. military helicopters were resuming relief flights in northern Pakistan on Wednesday, a day after an American chopper came under apparent attack as it ferried supplies to victims of the massive earthquake in divided Kashmir, officials said. Assailants fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a U.S. CH-47 Chinook helicopter around 1:45 p.m. on Tuesday as it flew over Chakothi, near the Line of Control that separates the Pakistani and Indian portions of the Himalayan region, said Capt. Rob Newell, a spokesman for the U.S. military relief effort.
"The aircraft was not hit and returned safely with its crew" to an air base near the capital, Newell told The Associated Press.
Pakistani army spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan told AP that he doubted any such attack took place, noting that road-clearing engineers were blasting a road near where the helicopters were flying.
"The blast was huge enough to kick up dust which the pilot probably misunderstood as rocket fire," he said, adding that Pakistani army troops carried out a cordon and search operation and spoke to witnesses on the ground, none of whom reported a rocket attack.
Newell said the four American crew members, a Pakistani pilot and a freelance journalist on board at the time were not hurt. Newell said the U.S. Army and the Pakistani government were investigating.
The U.S. military said flights were set to resume on Wednesday morning.
"We certainly intend to resume flying relief operations," said Comm. Nick Balice, another U.S. military spokesman.
A U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject to Pakistan-American relations, said the military stood by its account of the incident.
"The guy who saw it was one of the crew members who had been in Afghanistan for many months before coming over here," said the official. "He had been shot at numerous times and he knows what an RPG looks and feels like."
Most of the helicopters the U.S. is providing for quake relief have come straight from fighting Operation Enduring Freedom in neighboring Afghanistan.
Kashmir -- one of two Pakistani regions hit hardest by the Oct. 8 temblor -- is a focus for Islamic militants seeking to gain independence from India, or a merger with Pakistan. While Pakistan denies that militants use its territory as a base, their presence is barely hidden.
Militants have been openly helping with quake relief effort on both sides of Kashmir.
While most Pakistanis have expressed gratitude toward the United States and the international community for their help since the quake, some have doubted their intentions, with rumors that American military personnel are carrying out undercover reconnaissance operations, taking pictures of Pakistani nuclear facilities, or searching for al Qaeda militants.
The United States has deployed 24 helicopters, mostly heavy-lifting Chinooks like the one that was apparently fired upon, to help Pakistan recover from the quake, which is believed to have killed about 80,000 people and left millions more homeless.
U.S. officials hope its support for the relief effort can temper largely negative perceptions of America in this Islamic nation.
Although Pakistan is a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorism, many of the 150 million population opposed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Meanwhile, U.N. officials said Tuesday that reserves to get vitally needed relief supplies to earthquake victims are dwindling dangerously low as winter closes in and donations only trickle.
The United Nations said last Wednesday that it needed US$550 million (euro460 million) to get emergency aid to people stranded by landslides in the mountainous area of northern Pakistan. As of Tuesday donors had said they would give US$131 million, 23.9 percent of what is sought for the victims, reports CNN. I.L.
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