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ISLAMABAD, Oct 17: Pakistan on Monday declared that the reconstruction cost of areas affected by the devastating October 8 earthquake could go well beyond the initial estimate of $5 billion.

This was stated by Foreign Office spokesperson Tasnim Aslam at a weekly news briefing here in the afternoon.

“The process of damage assessment has not completed but it may go well beyond the initial estimate of US$5 billion,” Ms Aslam said while answering questions.

Underscoring that the earthquake was the worst-ever disaster in Pakistan’s history, she said: “The essential infrastructure in the affected area of 28,000 sqkm has been destroyed, including medical facilities, government buildings and schools affecting between 3.5 million and 4 million people who need shelter and food.”

She quoted the UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, who visited the affected areas on October 14-15, as saying that this disaster was even worse than the tsunami and the destruction was “unbelievable”.

According to the latest government figures, she said, the death toll was 40,000 and the number of injured above 80,000, adding that the numbers were likely to rise.

In the aftermath of the earthquake winterized tents and warm clothing were an urgent requirement, she emphasized.

In reply to a question, the spokesperson said nationals of China, Egypt, Japan, Italy and Iraq had become casualties of the quake.

FOREIGN RESPONSE: At the outset, she read out a long list of countries that had come forward to help Pakistan in search and rescue operations and dispatched immediate relief assistance.

She described international response to the grave humanitarian tragedy as “prompt and very impressive” and said this was deeply appreciated by the people and government of Pakistan.

“This restores our faith in the human family,” she stated.

The spokesperson mentioned that NATO and Saudi Arabia had established air bridges for continuous supplies of medical goods. She also gave a breakdown of foreign assistance.

UN & EU: The FO spokesperson told the briefing that the United Nations had now revised its initial Flash Appeal for US$272 million to US$312 for immediate relief.

“The response to the Flash Appeal has been very positive,” she maintained. Ms Aslam pointed out that the UN had also called a Donor Conference in Geneva on October 24 to take up the issue of relief and reconstruction in affected areas of Pakistan, adding that it would also be one of the agenda items at the EU meeting next week. “This can also go a long way in terms of contributions towards reconstruction and rehabilitation,” she maintained.

PLEDGES: The total foreign pledges so far amounted to a little over US$500 million, spokesperson Aslam said. Responding to a question she said the timeline for disbursement of pledges in case of the UN was from three to six months. However, she said there was no set timeframe for bilateral pledges as such, adding that some countries had already been handed over cash assistance.

Asked if Pakistan was satisfied with the pledges made by the international community, Ms Aslam said: “In terms of immediate relief assistance we are very satisfied.” However, she observed that for the next stage of rehabilitation and reconstruction would be a long drawn process and a mammoth task.

Hoping that countries would be as forthcoming, she emphasised: “We hope when TV cameras go away and there is less talk about it, the international attention will not fizzle out and contributions towards rehabilitation and reconstruction will be as generous.”

ISRAELI OFFER: On Israel’s offer for assistance, she said: “Yes, Israel did express the desire to assist in this difficult time through different sources.” Pointing to Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz’s recent statement that anyone who wanted to contribute was welcome to do so and there would be no restrictions, she said if Israel contributed through multilateral agencies or other international organisations like the ICRC that are heavily involved in relief efforts it would be acceptable to Pakistan.

INDIAN ASPECT: When a questioner asked her why Pakistan had not opened the Line of Control (LoC) to Indian troops for joint relief operations, she snapped back: “My counter question is what for?” She maintained that the closest population to LoC was four kilometres away and the natural access of the area was towards Pakistan.

Asked why Pakistan rejected India’s offer of helicopters, the spokesperson maintained that the Indian offer for help was “open ended” and no specific offer of helicopters had been made. In this context, she referred to the Indian prime minister’s statement that Pakistan’s sensitivities ought to be respected and Islamabad should indicate its requirements, which she said were conveyed.

“We deeply appreciate the assistance and help extended by people of India,” she added.

When her comments were sought on the Indian interpretation that Pakistan was reluctant to open up the LoC because it feared that its terrorist camps would stand exposed, Ms Aslam’s emphatic response was: “There are no terrorist training camps and never were. We will ignore that statement.”

A statement issued by the spokesperson later said Pakistan was accepting relief assistance from India and in order to meet the acute shortage of tents, Pakistan’s High Commissioner in New Delhi had been asked to arrange procurement of this item from India on an urgent basis.

On the question of helicopters that had been subject of comments in media, she added: “Pakistan was also willing to accept helicopters from India if these were offered without pilots. Given the obvious sensitivities, we could not accept involvement of Indian military on our side for relief operations.”

Earlier, when her attention was drawn to the reported damage caused to under construction Baglihar Dam by the quake, she said: “We have no reports on Baglihar.”