Relief helicopters back in Kashmir quake-zone

The rain and snow that had compounded the misery of earthquake survivors in Pakistani Kashmir abated on Tuesday to provide a window of opportunity to relief helicopters ferrying much needed aid to villages where freezing temperatures have already claimed their first life. The helicopters, which had been grounded Sunday and much of Monday by bad weather, were back carrying relief goods to snowcapped mountains and remote valleys in Pakistan's portion of the divided Kashmir region, Maj. Farooq Nasir, a Pakistan army spokesman in Muzaffarabad, said.

With the harsh Himalayan winter approaching, an infant who died of pneumonia Monday became the first reported victim of what officials fear will be a new wave of deaths after the Oct. 8 quake that killed more than 87,000 people and left some 3.5 million homeless.

A middle-aged man with terminal cancer also died after he was taken to a NATO hospital suffering from hypothermia, officials said. They attributed the death to cancer but said more hypothermia cases are likely as temperatures drop.

"One of the next crises facing us is the onset of winter," Air Commodore Andrew Walton, commander of the NATO disaster response team, said at the hospital Monday. "Many thousands of people are still without shelter."

In the coming weeks, he said, NATO plans to start using helicopters that have been hauling aid to the quake zone to carry shelter materials into the high mountains "before the winter really bites." They will also bring medical teams to otherwise inaccessible areas, he said.

A U.N. official, Elisabeth Byrs, said the relief effort remains underfunded and that, according to the Pakistani military, at least 300,000 people remain inaccessible and without tents in remote regions.

"The race to provide suitable shelter in time is not lost yet, but the consequences resulting from a lack of funds could result in more deaths of vulnerable people," said Byrs, spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Geneva. Of the 500,000 tents the United Nations purchased and stockpiled for quake relief, about 165,000 have yet to be delivered, she said, adding that stoves and corrugated iron sheeting also are urgently needed because many tents are not built for the winter.

"I'm really worried about the winter because I lost my house and we are living in tents," said Parveen Ejaz, 26, waiting at the NATO hospital Monday with her three children, all suffering from coughs and colds. "It's extremely cold, and when it rains, we get wet."

So far, the United Nations has received US$216 million (Ђ184 million) in emergency relief funds, only 39 percent of its appeal for US$550 million (Ђ469 million). Donors have pledged more than US$6 billion (Ђ5 billion) in loans and grants, but much of it is meant for reconstruction.

Any weather-related deaths "underscore the need to not forget about immediate relief efforts while plans for long-term reconstruction are ongoing," U.N. spokesman Brenden Varma said at the U.N. headquarters in New York.

The man who died at the NATO hospital early Monday had been brought in a day earlier with hypothermia, but he also had terminal cancer, said Lt. Col. Johan de Graaf, the facility's senior medical officer, reports the AP. I.L.

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