MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan, AP -A U.S.-based human rights group on Saturday accused Pakistani officials of storing tents and other relief supplies instead of immediately distributing them to earthquake survivors. The government denied the accusation.
The charges came as the U.N. appealed for more aid two weeks after the Oct. 8 earthquake, warning of another wave of deaths if survivors do not get shelter and food before the Himalayan winter sets in.
NATO has agreed to send up to 1,000 troops to Pakistan to boost relief efforts.
"We urgently need tents, shelter and helicopters for inaccessible areas," said Jan van de Moortele, the UN”s humanitarian aid coordinator for Pakistan. "Time is against us. We can buy everything with money, but not time."
Relief operations have taken on increasing urgency as temperatures drop. In Kashmir, snow has already fallen in the high mountains, and in upland villages, temperatures are below freezing at night.
Van de Moortele said at the current rate, some 200,000 tents will be in the country by winter — only enough to house about half the homeless families.
New York-based Human Rights Watch accused civilian authorities, working under military supervision, of storing tents and other needed relief goods at a supply depot in Muzaffarabad, the city at the heart of the quake-shattered region in Pakistani Kashmir.
Pakistani officials at the scene told the organization this was being done "so that they would be able to avoid problems when senior military and civilian officials demand supplies that otherwise would not be available," the group said in a statement.
One official said he would be fired if he gave out tents, the group added.
"Tents are the difference between life and death," said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch. "It is essential for the public to know that aid is being handled in a non-arbitrary, nondiscriminatory manner."
Pakistan”s chief army spokesman, Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan, called the accusation "a totally baseless and wrong report."
"At present, there is no need to store, and there is no place to store these things, which we desperately need at this point in time to save tens thousands of people rendered homeless due to the massive destruction," he said.
Sultan said relief goods were being received and then distributed to forward bases in affected regions, where quake survivors could obtain them.
"Now we are trying to regulate more effectively the relief, which was disbursed in the first phase in chaotic conditions," he said.
Liaquat Hussain, deputy commissioner of Muzaffarabad, also denied the report. He said the civil government had set up a registration system for relief goods coming through official channels and indicated that Human Rights Watch may have misunderstood what it saw.
"It is part of the system. We have a registration location … where we do check and register the supplies coming through the official channel, and then forward them to the most deserving locations in the affected areas," he said.
The quake, which killed an estimated 79,000 people and left more than 3 million homeless, has also created one of the most logistically challenging disasters.
U.N. officials said the international response to calls for aid had fallen far short of the need.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan sent letters Friday to all member nations, appealing for urgent contributions and repeating his fears that a dramatic increase in deaths could occur if more relief fails to arrive.
The next few weeks were critical, Annan said, urging the world to demonstrate "the same sense of global solidarity and commitment that we saw in the wake of the tsunami" that hit the Indian Ocean region on Dec. 26.
NATO allies agreed Friday to dispatch up to 1,000 troops — including military engineers, medics and others — to reinforce the earthquake relief effort, and to send 12 giant C-17 cargo planes loaded with supplies.
However, the alliance said it would only be able to muster five additional helicopters.
Currently, 65 helicopters — from nations including Pakistan, the United States, Afghanistan, Japan, and Germany — are being used to haul relief goods and evacuate the injured from remote areas. They have been flying virtually nonstop, but have yet to reach many of the estimated half million people still in desperate need of aid.