Pakistan aid chopper targeted; 355 dead in quake

Separatist militants fired two rockets that narrowly missed a Pakistani government helicopter surveying a region devastated by an earthquake, underscoring the dangers authorities face in helping victims in Baluchistan, the country's most impoverished province.

The doctor in charge of the main hospital in the area said the facility doesn't even have an X-ray machine or a laboratory and that supplies of crucial medicines were running low, as the death toll from the magnitude 7.7 quake climbed to 355 with nearly 700 people injured.

Survivors complained that aid was not reaching remote areas.

"We don't even have tents to cover my kids," said Haji Wajd Ali, who lives in the village of Labach, where every other house was destroyed.

"There are no shops. There is no food. There is no water," he said as temperatures reached 38 degrees Celsius during the day.

Labach lies just a few kilometres outside the capital of Awaran district, one of the poorest in Baluchistan.

In the town of Awaran, about 100 people demonstrated around the district office to call attention to the plight of those still waiting for help. The quake flattened wide sections of the district, leaving hundreds of people crushed or injured beneath the crumbled piles of mostly mud brick houses.

Helping the residents has been made even harder by the danger from Baluchistan separatists who have been battling the Pakistani government for years.

The militants fired two rockets Thursday at a helicopter carrying top Pakistani officials in charge of relief operations, but missed their target, said the deputy district commissioner, Abdur Rasheed. The helicopter was carrying the head of the country's National Disaster Management Authority, a Pakistani Army general in charge of relief operations and other officials.

In another incident about 20 kilometres north of the town of Awaran, militants fired at Frontier Corps troops involved in relief operations, said a military official speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give information to reporters. None of the troops was wounded.

Earlier Thursday, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan told members of parliament that security problems were making it difficult for rescuers to reach some areas.

There is strong resentment in Baluchistan against the central government, which many residents contend exploits the southwestern province's oil, natural gas and mineral deposits but fails to reinvest in the desperately poor region. The province is Pakistan's largest, making up around 40 per cent of the country's territory, but also its least populated, with only 9 million people.

The Awaran district, where some 300,000 people live across 30,000 square kilometres, has been a stronghold of the separatists. A Labach resident who went by one name, Masrullah, said the separatists live in the mountains overlooking the valley.

Masrullah said the separatists have warned that aid workers should not travel with the army or government officials to avoid being attacked. The separatists had already given out relief supplies to the village, he said.

Another resident, Mohammed Omar Meerwani, said the ongoing insurgency had already driven many people in the district to leave for other parts of Baluchistan or elsewhere in Pakistan before the earthquake.

Earlier this week, separatists fired on troops escorting doctors helping out with the quake effort. No one was hurt.

In Awaran town, troops from Pakistan's Frontier Corps patrolled the streets, and numerous checkpoints dotted the road that leads to the port city of Karachi, about 320 kilometres to the southeast.

The area's medical infrastructure is also struggling.

Dr Ameer Buksh, who is in charge of the district's main hospital, said Thursday that the facility has only two ambulances, making it difficult to reach patients in the villages or transport the most seriously injured to Karachi. The Edhi Foundation, a Pakistani aid organisation, donated eight ambulances, he said.

Buksh also said that supplies of antibiotics and other medicines were running low and that the hospital lacked an X-ray machine or a laboratory to treat the more than 400 patients who have arrived since Tuesday.

- AP

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