Earthquake relief operations in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir moved into full gear yesterday with the help of US and German helicopters, but hundreds of thousands of survivors were still desperate for help and facing a fifth night out in the cold.
Pakistani army spokesman Major Farooq Nasir said blue skies after torrential downpours on Tuesday had cleared the way for more mercy flights to bring badly needed food and medicine and take away the injured.
"We are bringing in food, blankets, tents and rescue teams. The weather has cleared so we're going full-ahead now with the relief operations," Nasir said in devastated Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
The city bore the brunt of the 7.6-magnitude earthquake which struck on Saturday, killing at least 23,000 people in Pakistan and instantly making some 2.5 million homeless, according to official estimates.
It is the worst natural calamity in Pakistan's history and officials fear the death toll could rise in the days ahead as the rubble is cleared and more bodies are found.
Towns and villages across northern Pakistan and parts of Kashmir have turned into makeshift refugee camps, with shocked survivors huddling under whatever they can find as they wait for aid that many say has been too slow in coming.
Nasir said 95 helicopter relief flights had brought vital supplies to the worst-hit regions of Kashmir over the past 24 hours, including 12 in the first few hours of daylight yesterday.
Witnesses said the thumping twin rotors of US army Chinook helicopters, diverted from the war against Taliban insurgents in neighboring Afghanistan, could be heard over Muzaffarabad shortly after sunrise.
"We've seen the foreigners sending in help, but nothing from our ... government," said Khurshid Bibi, pointing to her family of 15 camped on the roadside as a Chinook flew overhead.
Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, who made his first visit to a relief center here yesterday, praised the government's response even as men and women fought each other in the streets for the meager supplies being distributed.
"At the moment we are in a relief and rescue phase. The third phase is rehabilitation ... We have to think of the winter which is just around the corner," he said.
"If you see how the world has reacted, how our people have reacted, it is really a miracle. But we have to do more," he said.
Trucks painted in the Pakistani style of bright colors and murals started streaming into Muzaffarabad by mid-morning, clogging the streets and sparking fighting that police subdued with clubs.
Youths swarmed on one truck and looted it as soon as it had stopped, throwing clothing and blankets to hundreds of outstretched hands. Men and women struggled for the goods, slapping, punching and throttling each other.
A UN situation report on the international aid operation estimated that about 1,000 hospitals were "completely destroyed" by the quake.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, on an official visit to Afghanistan early yesterday, made an unscheduled detour and arrived in Islamabad.
She was scheduled to meet Aziz and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair pledged an additional ?0 million (US$17.4 million) yesterday in relief for the victims of the earthquake in Pakistan and neighboring countries.