BAGH, Pakistan, AP -Torrential downpours halted relief flights Sunday into the Himalayan region of Kashmir, compounding the misery of some 2 million people left homeless by a massive earthquake last weekend.
In a sign of cooperation between two longtime rivals, India gave Pakistan permission late Saturday to send relief helicopters into the one-mile-wide no-fly-zone on the Pakistani side of the cease-fire line that divides Kashmir. Normally, both countries keep their helicopters one mile back from the line.
The Pakistani military said Sunday one of its transport helicopters flying an aid mission had crashed in bad weather when it was returning home late Saturday after dropping off relief workers in the town of Bagh. All six of the military personnel aboard were killed, said army spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan. Bad weather or a technical malfunction were the suspected causes of the crash, he added.
Bagh is one of the areas hardest hit by the massive magnitude-7.6 quake that struck on Oct. 8. Relief workers have not been able to provide enough temporary shelters for town residents, let alone for the refugees who have streamed in from the mountains seeking aid.
Only 18,000 tents have been distributed so far in the entire quake zone, Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said Saturday. The country”s relief commissioner, Maj. Gen. Farooq Ahmad Khan, said earlier that 100,000 were needed.
The problems of aiding quake victims have been exacerbated because many whose houses did survive have refused to go back inside, fearing aftershocks could bring down the weakened structures.
"My house is full of cracks, and I won”t go inside," said Bagh resident Mumtaz Rathore, huddled under a plastic sheet with his wife and four children. "Look at me, I have to live out here with my children."
In the driving rain, soldiers scrambled to cover supplies that had been dropped off by helicopters in previous days.
"The medicines are the most important thing for us," said Maj. Ali Agha, directing the effort to save the supplies in Bagh.
The U.S. military said it had suspended its helicopter flights.
"Nobody”s going out today," said Col. Mark McKearn, who is charge of U.S. relief flight operations.
Likewise, the Chaklala Air Base in Rawalpindi was quiet Sunday, in contrast to the brisk activity a day earlier when helicopters loaded up with supplies and sped off for the earthquake zone.
The weather only added to the suffering in devastated regions.
A doctor in Bagh, Sajid Hussain, waded Sunday through ankle-deep water wearing a pair of plastic sandals, green surgical scrubs rolled up to his knees. He was heading toward a truck doubling as his operating theater.
Pounding rain overnight flooded the field of the boys college where he had set up, and a layer of water covered the floor of the tent where several patients lay waiting for surgery.
"It has been a tragedy and now this rain has made everything so much more horrible for people," Hussain said.
But there were new signs that the tragedy is helping to bridge the divide between the two sides of Kashmir, a territory that India and Pakistan have fought two out of their three wars over since winning independence from Britain in 1947.
India”s foreign ministry said it had received a request from Pakistan on Oct. 13 to fly helicopters in the peacetime no-fly zone.
Pakistan would provide advance information of any helicopter flights to the dozens of devastated villages close to the cease-fire line to prevent misunderstanding, said an Indian official, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to media.
Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said Saturday the official death toll from the earthquake had risen sharply to 38,000 from 25,000 and could still rise further as relief teams reach more villages in the remote folds of the Himalayan mountains. The change came after other officials had been estimating the toll to be above 35,000 for days though, with some 62,000 injured.
Musharraf said rescue operations were still under way but it would be a "miracle" to find anyone alive after eight days.
A 13-member team of doctors from the United States planned to fly to the affected area from Lahore on Sunday, but it was unclear whether they would be delayed by the weather, state news agency APP reported. The team, including Pakistani doctors practicing in the United States, was bringing tents, medicine and hospital equipment.
Temperatures dipped to 44 degrees in Balakot, one of the worst-hit towns just outside of Pakistani-controlled Kashmir in the country”s northwest. High winds drove the rain, making the town a soaked nightmare for victims, while snow fell in nearby mountains.
Prime Minister Aziz made it clear that shelter was now the priority.
"We need tents, tents, tents and prefab housing," he told reporters.
Pakistan”s Interior Ministry on Saturday ordered that visas be granted free-of-charge to all relief workers and doctors coming to help for the next three months. Already 2,873 emergency personnel from 61 countries have flooded in, the ministry said.
The U.N.”s World Food Program said it had flown in 35 tons of high-energy bars, donated by Norway, to be distributed in the affected areas. The rations contain enough nutrients for one week for more than 75,000 people, and more flights were planned for next week, the agency said.
More delays could be catastrophic. UNICEF has warned that thousands of children could die from cold, malnutrition and disease.