Australian Prime Minister heads on tour of Pakistan's quake zone

Australian Prime Minister John Howard headed Wednesday on a tour of areas devastated by Pakistan's huge Oct. 8 earthquake, after hinting he would announce new aid for the country's recovery. Howard was to go by helicopter to the Neelum Valley in Pakistan's portion of Kashmir to visit a health facility set up this month by a 140-member team of Australians, Pakistani army spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan said.

Howard, on a three-day visit to Pakistan since Monday, met with President Gen. Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz in Islamabad on Tuesday, when he praised Pakistan's stance on terrorism and conveyed Australia's condolences over the quake's "terrible consequences."

"Australia has already contributed significantly to the relief following the earthquake," Howard said after his meeting with Aziz, adding that "when I visit the area, I will have something further to say on that issue."

Donors at an international conference in Islamabad on Saturday pledged US$5.8 billion (Ђ5 billion) to Pakistan for relief and reconstruction following the quake, which killed an estimated 87,000 people and destroyed homes of more than 3 million people.

Australia, which announced no new pledge at the meeting, has so far offered US$10.6 million (Ђ8.9 million) in quake relief. Officials have said Howard was expected to announce more aid for Pakistan's recovery during his trip.

On Tuesday, Howard also expressed his "admiration" for Pakistan's stance against terrorism, a problem he said was "very real, very direct, very close and very threatening to your country."

"I greatly admire the personal stand you have taken in the war against terrorism at very considerable personal risk to your own safety," Howard said at a news conference with Musharraf.

He also praised Musharraf for his recent willingness to engage Israel's government. Pakistan's foreign minister met with his Israeli counterpart in September, following Israel's withdrawal from Gaza, in the first formal high-level contact between the two countries.

Islamic Pakistan long has demanded that the Jewish state end its occupation of Palestinian territory. Musharraf told a visiting American Jewish leader earlier this month that Pakistan would consider formally recognizing Israel only after the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

Aziz vowed that Pakistan would continue to fight terrorism, saying the government is tightening control over Islamic seminaries and is not allowing foreign students to study at the schools, long considered breeding grounds for militants, reports the AP. I.L.

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