- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 1, 2006

MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan — The season’s heaviest rain and snow lashed Pakistan’s earthquake-hit areas yesterday, grounding helicopter aid flights and deepening the misery of survivors, who huddled around campfires to keep warm.

Aid workers have warned that cold weather in the Himalayan foothills, where temperatures have already fallen below freezing, may claim more lives after the magnitude 7.6 quake on Oct. 8 left about 87,000 dead and 3.5 million homeless.

Poor visibility forced a suspension of flights by helicopters from the United Nations, foreign militaries and Pakistan’s army, which have been delivering winterized tents, clothes, food and other provisions to survivors, said an air force officer at Chaklala air base, near the capital, Islamabad.

The weather was likely to clear up enough for flights to resume by late today, he said on the condition of anonymity, in line with Pakistani government policy.

The United Nations estimates that 2.5 million people are living in tents below 5,000 feet and up to 400,000 others are in higher areas, where it is feared that snow and rain will make it harder for helicopters and trucks to reach them.

Cold rain pelted the quake zone throughout the day yesterday, and about 12 inches of snow fell above the 6,000-foot level, said Qamar-uz Zaman Chaudhry, head of Pakistan’s Meteorological Department.

Yesterday evening, heavy snow also blanketed Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan’s portion of Kashmir and the supply center for the humanitarian operation. Residents reported that roads leading to the higher mountains were blocked by vehicles stuck in snow.

Mr. Chaudhry said more snow and rain were likely in the next two days.

As the cold chilled sprawling tent cities that have sprung up in northwestern Pakistan and in Kashmir, survivors struggled to keep warm around campfires and candles — exposing them to yet another danger.

Police said three young sisters died Saturday when a fire swept through a tent in Gul Deri, a village in the northwest. A candle started a blaze inside a tent that the family pitched next to their home, which was destroyed by the quake, police official Samar Khan said.

Last month, seven persons, including four children, died in a similar accident, and U.N. officials said they had started teaching people how to make safe fires.

In Muzaffarabad and nearby areas, survivors said the rain and snow were making their lives miserable.

Sajjad Ali Shah, a 38-year-old at a damp, riverside camp in Muzaffarabad, said people had dug drains around their tents to keep out rainwater, but the ground had become soaked.

“We wrap our children in blankets, but it is very cold,” he said.

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