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Rain halts vital air link to Pakistan quake victims


MUZAFFARABAD, (Pakistan), Oct 15 (AFP): Heavy rain and clouds temporarily halted air operations supplying desperately needed aid to survivors of Pakistan's earthquake Saturday after another cold night rocked by aftershocks.
Pakistani authorities announced a sharp spike in the death toll to 38,000, a rise of 13,000, after coordinated rescue operations ended on Friday and bulldozers started clearing rubble full of dead bodies.
The number of homeless was also revised upward from 2.5 million to 3.3 million, Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao told AFP, as destitute survivors spent a seventh night out in the open in the freezing Himalayan foothills of Kashmir.
Heavy downpours throughout the morning hampered relief efforts and turned the roads to mud, and fresh snow was seen on the highlands where dozens of remote villages remained cut off from precarious supply links.
"The relief operation has been badly disrupted by this bad weather. There are many places we haven't yet reached. But we hope to get to some of them today," Anwar Khan, president of Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, told AFP.
Flights resumed by late morning as the clouds cleared, but more rain was forecast and health experts warned that the wet and cold could claim more victims through hypothermia.
"In these conditions, people will freeze. They will suffer hypothermia," said the WHO coordinator in this devastated Kashmiri city, Altuf Musani.
"There is a small window of less than a week to get to them. Those who are critically injured have very little chance."
Thousands of destitute people huddled under plastic tents as the rain lashed the city and the surrounding mountains for most of the morning.
Desperate survivors were seen scrambling in the rain and mud for packets of biscuits and other supplies which were being thrown from the backs of trucks by a variety of non-governmental organisations and other groups.
A week after the catastrophe, UN agencies were only just starting to make their presence felt, witnesses said.
"There is enough for everyone. Line up! There is enough for all of you," shouted an independent aid volunteer at the top of a brightly painted truck as the crowd fought for food and blankets.
The rain not only hampered aid supplies, but also the evacuation of the wounded, many of whom had been waiting for days with gangrenous wounds.
"The injured are suffering from fractured bones. Many of them needed amputation because infection is widespread among the patients," said Eric d'Andigne of the Sapeurs-Pompiers de Paris, the French army's rescue and fire fighting team.
"Due to infection, we have amputated legs and other limbs of many patients in our camps."
Major Farooq Nasir, the spokesman for the army's emergency relief operations in Muzaffarabad, said there were 93 helicopter sorties on Friday, up from about 80 the day before.
The aircraft came from Pakistan as well as Germany, Switzerland and the United States, which has diverted choppers from military operations in neighbouring Afghanistan.
A moderate aftershock rattled the Pakistani capital Islamabad in the early hours of Saturday, causing people to run out of their homes for fear of buildings collapsing, witnesses said.
The short jolt, measuring 5.0 on the Richter scale according to the US Geological Survey, hit at around 12:36 am (1936 GMT Friday), with an epicentre some 130 kilometres (80 miles) north of the capital.
"We felt a shock and it was not a big one, but we and some other people in our street did rush out," said resident Arif Saeed.
There were no immediate reports of any casualties or damage.
Meanwhile: Thousands more quake victims could die of their wounds in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir over the next few days if help does not reach their isolated villages, a doctor from a British medical charity who toured the region said Saturday.