LAHORE/PESHAWAR: Desperate survivors appealed for food and blankets yesterday after a devastating earthquake killed more than 350 people in Pakistan, as harsh weather and rugged terrain hampered rescue efforts. Rescuers fear several hundred children sleeping outside on the Kalash Valley’s freezing slopes may die from exposure if they do not reach them soon with food, blankets and emergency shelter. Mass burial ceremonies were conducted as officials warned that the death toll could spike as entire communities remain inaccessible amid freezing winter conditions.

Officials were unable to reach authorities in Kohistan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for a second day to see how its population of nearly half a million people had fared. An estimated 500 children in Kalash Valley are among more than 5,000 villagers left homeless when their houses were destroyed in Monday’s earthquake, rescuers said last night. They spent their second night without shelter last night as landslides and heavy snowfall blocked the main access road from Chitral and thwarted attempts to rescue them. Rescuers from religious charities expressed similar concerns for villagers in Ramboor, Booni, Garm Chashma and some parts of Fata and said it was critical that relief reaches them in the next six to eight hours.

Hafiz Abdur Rauf, who is leading Falah-e-Insaniyat Foundation’s 2,000 rescue volunteers, yesterday said the people of Kalash Valley were desperate for immediate relief, but faced another night exposed to the elements. The group had received a number of pleas for help from Kalash residents, but has not been able to reach them. “Roads are blocked and the temperature is freezing in Kalash areas. We fear the death toll could climb in the coming days,” he said. “The Army is sending food and medicines in helicopters to the affectees, but they require help at a large level,” he added. Rauf who worked in the area during the 2005 Kashmir earthquake said so far 300 people have been found critically injured in nearby hospitals in Bat Khel, Temergarah, Peshawar and Saidu Sharif, Mingora.

Their concerns were echoed by the Unicef which said it feared the children displaced from their homes and living without shelter were most at risk. “We are extremely concerned for the safety and wellbeing of the children who are already at the highest risk in any disaster are now in danger of succumbing to the elements as temperature plummets,” said Unicef’s regional director for South Asia, Karin Hulshof. Efforts to reach them in time, have, however, so far been slow. The Frontier Works Organisation had cleared large sections of the key Dir-Chitral and Gilgit-to-Shandur highways by yesterday morning, but had yet to make headway with the main entry road to the Kalash Valley.

The army has focused on clearing landslides from the main Karakoram Highway which has opened access to major cities, but remote areas off the main highway remain out of reach. “We are assessing damages, rehabilitating major roads and carrying out relief activities in affected areas. Two helicopters are flying each in Gilgit-Baltistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa ,” Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Director General Lt-Gen Asim Bajwa said yesterday.

Shaukat Awan, a meteorologist who has worked throughout the affected area, said only the army is equipped to conduct rescue operations in its extreme terrain and harsh weather conditions. “Army helicopters can operate in hilly areas even during rains and snowfall. Army men acquainted with the area can reach strangled people with food and relief goods. They can go on foot or transport goods on mules or donkeys,” he said. Charity rescuers, however, said the army had not deployed sufficient resources to meet the scale of the need following the quake.

“The army is opening the roads, but the process is slow and affected areas are so vast. The people need immediate relief. The army itself is doing rescue work in the belt, but the need is higher,” said a rescue worker from Al-Khidmat Foundation, the charitable wing of Jamaat-e-Islami. Some raised concerns for those hit by the earthquake close to the Fata-Afghanistan border where the army has been carrying out anti-terrorist operations. Kohistan district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa remained cut off from rest of the province for second day. “There is no way to communicate with the officials in Kohistan, the communication lines have been disrupted and roads blocked so we cannot say anything about the damage there,” a police official in Peshawar told AFP.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif flew to Shangla in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa - believed to be one of the worst-hit districts with 52 reported dead so far - where he pledged compensation for damaged homes. In Gandao village in Shangla the quake left homes completely flattened or riddled with cracks, forcing most of the population to camp out in the open amid freezing winter rain. People desperately appealed to the government for quilts, blankets, sweaters and food rations as snowy conditions set in. “We have nothing to eat and wear in the cold,” resident Hakim Khan, 60, whose 12-year-old nephew was killed in the quake. “My family members are forced to wait for help under the open sky.”

Authorities were struggling to ascertain the damage in Chitral, where a local official said the quake had damaged the water supply system. “Around 80,000 people don’t have access to clean drinking water and it’s our top priority to restore the water supply,” he said. In other remote areas residents - including children and the elderly - were helping with relief work, many of them digging through piles of rubble for survivors.