Asharq Al-Awsat, Islamabad – Most dialogue in Pakistan presently concentrates on the reconstruction and relief efforts following the 8 October earthquake, which claimed the lives of approxiametely 73,000 people, caused injuries to a similar number of people, and the displacement of about 3.5 million people from Muzaffarabad, the capital of the Pakistani administered Kashmir, and other cities such as Sinjar and Bagh.
General Shawkat Sultan, the official spokesman for the Pakistani president, held a meeting with a number of representatives of Arab and international media outlets at the army headquarters in Islamabad. He spoke about dealing with the challenges posed by the earthquake and said that this is the greatest task that the country is currently facing. He denied claims that Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Ladin was killed in the earthquake.
After showing a documentary entitled "A Nation Rising," General Shawkat Sultan said that the earthquake hit nine governorates and destroyed 400,000 homes, and that the area covered by the devastating earthquake was 28,000 square kilometers. He also said that despite the enormity of the catastrophe, the Pakistani Army forces handled the situation very rapidly. The first Pakistani helicopter arrived in Muzaffarabad 20 minutes after the earthquake, and the first injured was admitted to the military hospital in Rawalpindi after having been transferred from Bagh within 45 minutes. Moreover, he said that the Western media was very interested in the collapse of a residential tower in Islamabad and did not pay attention to the size of the catastrophe in Kashmir and in nearby cities.
Sultan hailed Saudi, UAE, and US relief efforts. He said that the first aircraft carrying relief materials arrived on the night of the earthquake, 8 October, from the UAE. He noted that the second country in terms of aid offered to Pakistan is Saudi Arabia, as it offered $573 million. He also noted that the Islamic Development Bank has offered $500 million in aid to the earthquake stricken people. Moreover, he said that the United States has donated $510 million, France has given $124 million, the European Union has offered $110 million, Turkey has offered $150 million, and the UAE has offered $100 million. Furthermore, he noted that 47 countries are involved in the relief effort and in alleviating the suffering of the earthquake survivors; foremost among these countries are the United States, Britain, France, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, China, and Japan.
Sultan noted that the main challenge that faced the Pakistani Forces and the relief teams was opening roads to reach the high Bal (mountainous) areas and the isolated villages to search for survivors. He said that the greatest service that was offered by the United States was providing a number of Chinook helicopters that rapidly arrived from Afghanistan to assist in transferring aid to the stricken areas, in addition to setting up makeshift US military hospitals to accommodate the casualties. Sultan added that 40,000 tents could not accommodate all the earthquake survivors because many farmers who left their destroyed homes have not yet returned to the valley. He expressed his belief that the Pakistani Government will be able to build about 400,000 new homes for the stricken people by wintertime. Moreover, he stressed that the challenge faced by the Pakistani Government is maintaining the earthquake survivors in the camps before the harsh winter begins. He also stressed that the situation in northern Pakistan at present is catastrophic, because the earthquake claimed the lives of more than 50,000 people there and displaced 2.5 million people who are currently living in those areas without shelter. The World Food Program estimates that half of the stricken people have not yet received any food supplies.
The General told Asharq al-Awsat that his country”s government is aware of the danger that fundamentalist groups such as the banned "The Army of Muhammad," "Askar Tibah," and "Al-Da”wah Group," considered terrorist organizations, could exploit the earthquake catastrophe. He revealed that some fundamentalist groups have asked to offer aid "but we are monitoring them," and "no one in the stricken areas other than the army forces and the Pakistani police is allowed to carry weapons." General Shawkat Sultan denied reports that Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Ladin was killed in the earthquake. He added that he does not know where Bin Ladin is hiding, "but perhaps he is in the border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan."
Regarding reports that Al-Qaeda leader Abu-Musab al-Suri was arrested in Kuita on the border with Afghanistan last month, General Shawkat Sultan said that the Pakistani Army has so far not confirmed such reports. He added that the fact that Pakistan is currently preoccupied with relief operations does not mean that it has abandoned its efforts to achieve security and stability and to chase Al-Qaeda remnants.
It is worth noting that Pakistan encompasses 150 million people; that is, about half the inhabitants of the Arab world. Moreover, Pakistan has witnessed serious attacks by extremist fundamentalists, among which was the attempt to assassinate President Pervez Musharraf. Furthermore, many Al-Qaeda leaders and elements have been arrested in Pakistan, including Khalid Shaykh Muhammad, Ramzi Bin al-Shibah, Abu-Zubaydah, and Abu al-Faraj al-Libby.