MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan (AP) – Pakistan”s army flew a team of geologists to an isolated northwestern valley Tuesday to investigate reports of possible volcanic activity that could force the evacuation of 150,000 people from the quake-shattered Himalayan foothills, an official said.
The two-man team left to survey the Alai Valley after villagers reported what they said could be a volcano, said Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan. He said experts are hopeful the villagers are mistaken and speculated that aftershocks of the massive Oct. 8 temblor and landslides could be confusing the terrified inhabitants.
Army helicopters flew over the rugged region of North West Frontier Province on Monday and found no immediate signs of an eruption, Sultan said. It was not clear when the geologists would release their findings. Sultan said that if they find evidence of a volcanic eruption the 150,000 people who live in the region will be evacuated.
An estimated 3.3 million people have already been left homeless by the quake, which killed about 80,000 people.
There have been few cases of looting or anarchy amid the chaos, but police in quake-hit Mansehra district, north of Islamabad, said Tuesday that they had arrested 350-400 people over the past two weeks for taking relief supplies, whether by stealing them outright or lining up to receive aid more than once.
The arrests have been made in a number of damaged towns since relief started flowing in for quake victims, local police chief Yamin Khan said.
"We want to ensure that only those who need the aid get it," he said.
A huge international relief effort has been mounted for quake victims, but fears remain for vulnerable communities in distant mountains with the harsh Himalayan winter closing in. Temperatures on Tuesday dropped as low as -1 Celsius (30 degrees Fahrenheit) in the mountains, dangerous weather for those left out of doors.
Despite fresh appeals and warnings of a second wave of deaths, the United Nations said Monday it has received less than 30 percent of the US$312 million (euro261 million) it needs to help the victims. Pakistan has said rebuilding the area will cost US$5 billion.
Secretary-General Kofi Annan invited ministers to attend a high-level donor conference in Geneva on Wednesday to mobilize additional financial support.
Cloudy weather Tuesday raised concern that rain could fall in the coming days. But Maj. Farooq Nasir, army spokesman in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan”s portion of Kashmir, said helicopter relief flights were still operating.
The Alai Valley is located at a height of about 6,000 feet (1,800 meters) and is surrounded by mountains as high as 10,000 feet (3,000 meters).
An official from Pakistan”s meteorological department, who requested anonymity because he wasn”t authorized to speak to the media, said there was very little chance of volcanic activity as there was no recent history of eruptions in Pakistan.
The Alai Valley, about 200 kilometers (120 miles) north of Islamabad, remains one of the most isolated areas since the quake, and nearly all aid must be shuttled in by helicopter.
Pancho Boeren, an emergency response team leader with CARE International, said his group was concentrating much of its efforts on the valley, and was now trying to get about 7,500 tents there.
"Our challenge now is getting them out to the communities who need them before winter sets in," Boeren said. Indian soldiers have set up a relief camp for Pakistani quake victims along the Line of Control dividing Kashmir, although it remains empty as India and Pakistan try to broker a deal to allow people to cross the militarized frontier.
Meanwhile, a U.S. Army field hospital unit, with more than 130 staff, started treated patients in Muzaffarabad, on a mission Washington hopes will help generate goodwill among Pakistanis.
Officials say it is the eighth mobile hospital to be set up in the ruined city, and only two patients were waiting when it opened Tuesday morning. The hospital”s arrival was delayed by a shortage of aircraft, vehicle breakdowns and the winding roads of the lower Himalayas.
The first patient, Aribba Abbasi, a 3-year-old girl, was suffering a broken thigh from when her home collapsed on her. The other, Faisal Hussain, an 8-year-old boy, had been caught in a collapsed school and had a bad gash on his ankle. Both had already received treatment but needed follow-up care.
"We are hoping to get proper treatment here. We are glad the Americans came," said Faisal”s father, Sharif Hussain. U.S. officials say they are eager to show Pakistan, a major ally in the war on terrorism, that the United States is here in its hour of need. Its helicopters, mostly heavy-lifting Chinooks, are key to the air relief effort.
A second hospital unit is on its way from the U.S. base at Okinawa, Japan, said Rear Adm. Michael LeFever, director of the U.S. Disaster Assistance Center in Pakistan. That team, along with more helicopter and maintenance personnel, will bring the total U.S. military presence there to more than 1,000.
The official quake toll is more than 53,000 dead and 75,000 injured, though central government figures have lagged behind regional ones. Figures from officials in the North West Frontier Province and Pakistan”s part of Kashmir add up to about 78,000. India reported 1,360 deaths in its part of Kashmir.