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Pakistan quake toll rises to 356

QUETTA, Pakistan, Sept. 27 (UPI) --
Pakistan's earthquake-hit Balochistan province urged separatists and militants to halt their violence so relief efforts for the thousands affected can proceed.



As the death toll from Tuesday's 7.7-magnitude quake in the country's largest but thinly populated province climbed to 356 as of Friday, authorities faced the daunting task of providing massive relief to about 300,000 affected people in the remote areas as well tens of thousands more left homeless by the disaster.



Authorities in the southwest province, rich in natural resources, said they also have to contend with various separatist groups in the province that have been fighting for years for autonomy. The province also has been plagued by sectarian violence targeting the minority Shiite Muslims, many of whom make Balochistan their home.



Jan Muhammad Buledi, a spokesman for the provincial government, told reporters attacks on security forces in the district of Awaran, the quake's epicenter, were affecting relief and rescue operations.



"People will die of hunger, if the attacks continued," Dawn quoted Buledi as saying. "Women and children are in desperate need of help."



The Dawn report said Buledi's appeal came after authorities said militants Thursday fired two rockets at a helicopter carrying the Pakistani general in charge of disaster relief. The helicopter was not hit.



The quake also razed thousands of homes, most of them built with mud, and brought down numerous buildings in Awaran and Kech districts, which are among the worst hit.



Besides the 356 confirmed dead, Buledi said another 619 were wounded.



He told Dawn communications systems in the sparsely populated province have been badly affected, making it difficult for rescue workers to reach survivors in the remote areas. "I fear there may be more bodies buried under the rubble," Buledi added.



Officials said rescue workers were facing a lack of medical facilities and space at local hospitals, forcing them to transfer many of the injured by helicopters to hospitals to the provincial of Quetta and elsewhere in Pakistan.



Although there have been offers of help from U.N. agencies, international donors and some countries, Pakistan's National Disaster Management Authority said it would use its own resources for the rescue and relief effort.



NDMA Chairman Maj. Gen. Mohammad Saeed Aleem, whose helicopter was the target of the rocket attack, said relief goods from Karachi, Pakistan's largest city and main port in Sindh province, have been brought to Awaran and Kech districts and that the military and paramilitary forces were assisting in distributing them to the victims.



Other districts hit by the quake were Gwadar, Panjgur, Chaghi and and Khuzdar. Gwadar is Balochistan's port city in the Arabian Sea and it was off this coastal city where the powerful earthquake also pushed up three mountain-like islands.



CNN said authorities estimate about 21,000 houses have been destroyed in the affected areas.



The victims were also facing a shortage of drinking water as these are the hottest months in Balochistan.



The New York Times said there was no immediate claim of responsibility for the rocket attack on Aleem's chopper. It quoted military officials as saying despite the incident, 10 army helicopters were continuing their rescue work, including transporting some of the injured to medical facilities.



The army has dispatched 1,200 troops, 21 military doctors and 50 paramedics to the affected areas.



"These are troubled regions ... and we have heard about security concerns among the [nongovernmental relief groups] operating there," Bijar Khan Marri, a spokesman for the Pakistan Red Crescent Society, told The Washington Post. "However, as an independent relief organization, we are just hoping we will not face any trouble out there. I believe the people know we are there for relief."



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