British military helicopters begin to send tents, food to quake victims

Two British military helicopters on Wednesday joined an increasingly urgent push to send tents, food and other supplies to victims of last month's earthquake that killed more than 86,000 people and devastated large parts of mountainous northern Pakistan. Medical teams, meanwhile, have moved into a new clinic built to isolate victims of a major dysentery outbreak at a crowded refugee camp in Muzaffarabad, the quake-shattered capital of Pakistani-controlled Kashmir.

Hundreds of people had been hospitalized with severe dehydration as a result of poor hygiene in the camp, but new cases have since fallen to just a few dozen daily, medical workers said.

The newly arrived British heavy-lift Chinooks join a fleet of about 80 helicopters being operated by a variety of governments and aid agencies in one of the biggest-ever helicopter airlifts of aid. The British choppers will fly nine-hour daily missions over the next three days, initially delivering 450 tons of tents, blankets, cooking supplies and mattresses to remote mountain villages that have been cut off by landslides. Later flights will focus on food aid.

"Winter's on its way. The snow line is coming down day by day," British flyer Steve Shell said between takeoffs at Muzaffarabad's tiny airport, carved out of the mountains surrounding the city.

The United Nations warned last month it might have to cut back flights due to a lack of funds, but on Tuesday said a fresh cash injection of US$14 million (Ђ12 million) will sustain food drops for at least two more months.

The Oct. 8 quake destroyed the homes of about 3 million people, leaving hundreds of thousands living in tents while an unknown number have yet to receive shelter of any kind.

Hygiene among refugees is poor and medical workers at the sprawling camp on a sports field at Muzaffarabad's destroyed university have constructed a new clinic across the street with its own latrines and sanitation equipment. Doctors said that was helping contain the dysentery outbreak, with just 45 new cases reported on Wednesday.

The old clinic inside the camp "was just squalid," said Dr. John Watson of the World Health Organization.

With the focus turning to long-term reconstruction, relief officials will meet in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, starting Friday to discuss long-term funding for the effort, expected to cost about US$5.2 billion (Ђ4.4 billion). The United Nations says it needs US$550 million (Ђ470 million) in emergency aid, but donors have pledged only US$131 million (Ђ112 million), reports the AP. I.L.

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