MUZAFFARABAD, Oct 12: Relief operations in earthquake-hit Azad Kashmir got into full gear on Wednesday with the help of US and German helicopters, but hundreds of thousands of survivors were still desperate for help 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,” Maj Nasir told AFP in the devastated capital of Azad Kashmir.

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 coming.

Maj 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 on Wednesday.

Witnesses said US army Chinook helicopters, diverted from the war against Taliban insurgents in neighbouring Afghanistan, could be heard over Muzaffarabad shortly after sunrise.

The World Bank said it was doubling its initial commitment to Pakistan to 40 million dollars.

The United Nations said a World Food Programme (WFP) convoy with 39 tonnes of high-energy biscuits arrived on Wednesday in Abbottabad while a second convoy carrying another 40 tons was en route to Muzaffarabad.

Meanwhile the UN High Commissioner for Refugees began distributing tents, plastic sheeting, mattresses, kitchen sets and other items from its warehouses in Peshawar.

The UN said the World Health Organization (WHO) deployed 11 surgical teams and one public health team to quake-hit areas.

Trucks 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 stopped, throwing clothing and blankets to hundreds of outstretched hands. Men and women struggled for the goods, slapping, punching and throttling each other.

Answering Pakistan’s repeated appeals for helicopters, the United States was diverting choppers from military operations in Afghanistan and a UN official said Canada had offered funds to hire more aircraft.

Eight US military helicopters were already on the scene and four more were en route, a Pentagon spokesman said, as Washington made a special effort to demonstrate its willingness to help a major ally in the “war on terror”.

The search for survivors was also continuing even as hopes faded that anyone could still be alive beneath the rubble.

“For now we are concentrating on search and rescue. We’re coordinating with the Pakistani army as to when relief distribution will begin,” said a UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination spokesman.

Jan Vandemoortele, UN resident coordinator for Pakistan, admitted that some areas still had not seen a single relief worker due to the difficulty of accessing the mountainous terrain.

A UN report estimated that about 1,000 hospitals were destroyed by the quake.—AFP

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