The official death toll in Pakistan from the mammoth October 8 earthquake has jumped to more than 73 000, with about the same number listed as severely injured, the army's disaster-relief chief said on Wednesday.Pakistan's top relief official, Major General Farooq Ahmed Khan, said 73 276 people have been confirmed dead in Pakistan, up from 57 597. More than 69 000 people sustained severe injuries, with the total number of injuries much higher, he said in a news conference in Islamabad.
The announcement brings the government's numbers more in line with those being used by local officials -- who have been saying for more than a week that they believed at least 79 000 people died in Pakistan in the temblor. Another 1 350 died in India's portion of Kashmir.
No reason was given for the sudden spike, but the government has been proceeding cautiously in its official count. Many areas in the quake zone have still not been reached, and the death toll is expected to rise further.
The United States military resumed relief flights in northern Pakistan on Wednesday, but will stay a "safe distance" from where one of its choppers allegedly came under attack on Tuesday as it ferried supplies to quake victims in divided Kashmir, said military spokesperson Commander Nick Balice.
In an account disputed by Pakistan's army, the US military reported that assailants fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a US CH-47 Chinook helicopter on Tuesday as it flew over Chakothi, near the Line of Control that separates the Pakistani and Indian portions of Kashmir. The helicopter was not hit and crew members returned safely to an air base near the capital.
Pakistani army spokesperson Major General Shaukat Sultan said he doubts 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 search operation and spoke to witnesses on the ground, none of whom reported a rocket attack.
Investigations by the US Army and the Pakistani government into the incident are ongoing.
Twenty-four US military helicopters, many diverted from Afghanistan, are helping with relief efforts in Pakistan and its side of Kashmir.
Kashmir has been 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 the quake relief effort on both sides of Kashmir. Pakistan's foreign ministry said on Wednesday that preparations are under way to open up the militarised border on November 7, as agreed to by New Delhi and Islamabad in a breakthrough weekend deal aimed at speeding up relief and reuniting quake victims with their divided families.
The spokesperson for one prominent militant group, Jaish-e-Mohammed -- which is alleged to have links to al-Qaeda and claimed responsibility for a suicide car bombing that killed at least four people in Indian-held Kashmir on Wednesday -- said it will not contemplate attacking any foreigners, including Americans, who are helping survivors of quake.
"All those foreigners, including Americans, who are helping our people in the quake-hit areas are our honourable guests," spokesperson Sahrai Baba said, adding: "We cannot even think of doing anything against them." A US military official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject to Pakistan-American relations, said the military stands by its account of the incident.
A senior Pakistani army official said that until the US military has completed its own investigation, its helicopters will not fly deep into Kashmir, but only to the main city of Muzaffarabad, and to Balakot and Batagram in neighbouring North West Frontier province. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorised to comment on it to the media, reports Guardian online. I.L.