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(Islamabad) - Scarce tents and other relief supplies are being put in storage in the city of Muzaffarabad in earthquake stricken Pakistan-administered Kashmir by civilian authorities working under the supervision of the military, rather than handed out to needy, homeless persons, Human Rights Watch said today.

On October 19 at Muzaffarabad’s civil secretariat, Human Rights Watch was present at a supply depot where government civil servants were working to help store supplies on the promise of being provided tents at the end of a day’s labor. The depot was under the control of officials from the “services group,” an administrative unit working for the chief secretary, the highest ranking civil servant in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Several civil servants informed Human Rights Watch that they had been engaged in the activity for three days, only to return to their shelterless families empty-handed every night.

Human Rights Watch was told by officials at the scene in charge of dispersing these tents, which had been designated for government workers in Muzaffarabad, that tents and other emergency supplies were being stored instead. Officials present said that this was being done so that they would be able to avoid problems when senior military and civilian officials demand supplies that otherwise would not be available. One official said that he would be fired if he handed out the tents. Under pressure from the intended recipients, one official did release some tents to some of the people on the list of designated civil servants. Each tent can provide shelter for six people.

“In Pakistan-administered Kashmir, tents are the difference between life and death,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It is essential for the public to know that aid is being handled in a non-arbitrary, non-discriminatory manner.”

After the earthquake, Human Rights Watch warned that the greatest threat to human rights often arises in crisis situations and called on the government of Pakistan to adhere to international human rights standards in the organization and provision of relief.

Asma Jahangir, chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, was also present at the scene. She told Human Rights Watch that, “Tents are now the most important commodity in Kashmir. But they are being used for power and patronage by military and civilian authorities that control the territory. This needs to be sorted out immediately.”

Hundreds of thousands of homeless and displaced victims of the October 8 earthquake that devastated Pakistan-administered Kashmir and Northern Pakistan face the threat of disease and death from exposure unless the supply of weatherized tents and blankets increases dramatically and quickly. Almost two weeks after the earthquake, there is a massive shortage of tents even in Muzaffarabad, the hub of international and Pakistani relief efforts.

Relief efforts have been hampered by a lack of coordination between the army and civilian authorities in Pakistan-administered Kashmir and a scarcity of resources.

“The tsunami and other natural disasters have made it clear that it is critical to involve civil society and community leaders in the relief effort, regardless of political affiliation,” said Adams. “This is a challenging situation for all concerned but it may worsen unless the Pakistani authorities become more inclusive in the coordination and organization of relief efforts.”

At least 55,000 people are thought to have died, though the number is likely to rise significantly. At least 70,000 are injured. Almost three million people have lost their homes and been displaced. The United Nations says that the situation for survivors is worse than after the Southeast Asian tsunami.

UNICEF, the U.N. children's agency, has said hundreds of villages remain inaccessible and 10,000 children could die of hypothermia, hunger and disease over the next few weeks. Though the Pakistani military authorities and others are attempting aerial aid drops, the distribution to thousands of scattered mountain communities remains haphazard. Villagers who had trekked for hours to reach Muzaffarabad described to Human Rights Watch how helicopters sometimes miss their targets and the goods land thousands of feet below in valleys or forests, remaining inaccessible.

International teams have set up field hospitals and provided some relief in Muzaffarabad and outlying areas. Pakistani relief agencies and volunteer groups have also ferried relief goods and personnel into the territory.

The United Nations has only received firm commitments of U.S. $37 million of the U.S. $312 million flash appeal it launched in the aftermath of the earthquake.

“Donors should make sure that they provide enough support and the right types of support, especially tents, blankets and medicine, as soon as possible,” said Adams. “Inaction or further delay may mean that hundreds of thousands of people will freeze to death as the Himalayan winter approaches.”

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