September 26, 2013 9:20:19 AM
ARAWAN, Pakistan -- Two rockets fired by militants in Pakistan's quake-struck region narrowly missed a government helicopter today as survivors complained that aid was not reaching far-flung areas and the harrowing death toll climbed to 355.
The attack underscored the dangers authorities and aid workers face in helping victims in southwestern Baluchistan province where a massive, magnitude 7.7 earthquake hit earlier this week.
Two days after the tremor struck, rescuers were still struggling to help survivors. The death toll from the quake reached 355 on today, with nearly 700 people injured, according to a statement from the country's National Disaster Management Authority.
In the town of Arawan, about 100 protesters gathered around the district office to call attention to the plight of those living in outlying villages still waiting for help.
"The people who survived the earthquake are dying now because they have no food or water," said Abdul Latif, one of the protesters.
Tuesday's massive quake was centered in Awaran district, one of the poorest in Pakistan's most impoverished province, Baluchistan. The area's medical infrastructure has struggled to care for the hundreds of injured who were crushed beneath mud brick houses when the quake struck.
That task has been made even harder by the danger from separatists in Baluchistan who have been battling the Pakistani government for years. The militants fired two rockets today at a helicopter carrying top Pakistani officials in charge of relief operations.
The rockets missed and no one was injured, said the deputy district commissioner, Abdur Rasheed.
The helicopter was carrying the head of the country's National Disaster Management Authority, a Pakistani Army general in charge of relief operations and other officials.
Before the incident, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan told members of parliament Thursday that rescuers were already having a hard time reaching some areas due to security problems. They were trying to use C-130 planes to reach those spots, said Nisar.
Ethnic Baluch separatists have waged a bloody insurgency to win independence for the vast province. Even among those who haven't taken up arms, there is strong resentment against the central government that they feel exploits the province's oil, natural gas and mineral deposits but fails to reinvest any of the money into the desperately poor region.
The province is Pakistan's largest, making up around 40 percent of the country's territory, but also its least populated, with only 9 million people. Just over half the province's population is Baluch.
The local government is seen as notoriously corrupt and dysfunctional. Paramilitary soldiers and intelligence agents have waged a repressive campaign against separatists that has fueled distrust of authorities.
The Awaran district has been a stronghold of the separatists, such as the Baluchistan Liberation Army. A resident who went by one name, Masrullah, in the village of Labach outside of Awaran, said the separatists live up in the mountains overlooking the valley.
Masrullah told The Associated Press the separatists have warned that aid workers should not travel with the army or government officials to avoid being attacked. The separatists had already given out relief supplies to the village, he said.
Earlier this week, separatists fired on troops escorting doctors helping out with the quake effort. No one was hurt.
In Awaran, troops from Pakistan's Frontier Corps patrolled the streets, and the few people driving from Karachi to Awaran passed through numerous security checkpoints.
Medical facilities in the province are few and often poorly stocked with supplies and qualified personnel.
Many of the injured were ferried to the port city of Karachi or Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan, for treatment.
A doctor at the main hospital for Awaran, a district of 300,000 spread out over 29,000 square kilometers (11,197 square miles), said Thursday that they didn't have an X-ray machine or a laboratory to treat the more than 400 patients that have come through the hospital since Tuesday.
The supply of antibiotics and other medicines was low, said Dr. Ameer Buksh, who is in charge of the facility.
He said the hospital only has two ambulances, making it difficult to reach patients in the villages or transport the most serious to the port city of Karachi. The Edhi Foundation, which runs a network of ambulance services and other aid operations around the country, donated eight ambulances, he said.
The quake flattened wide swathes of the district, leaving the mostly mud brick houses in crumbled piles and their former residents homeless.
Rasheed, the deputy district commissioner, said more than 100,000 people in the district were affected and 85 percent of the homes damaged.