The US military resumed relief flights in northern Pakistan today but would stay a “safe distance” from where one of its choppers allegedly came under attack as it ferried supplies to victims of the massive earthquake in divided Kashmir, a spokesman said.
In an account disputed by Pakistan’s army, the US military reported that assailants fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a US CH-47 Chinook helicopter around yesterday as it flew over Chakothi, near the Line of Control that separates the Pakistani and Indian portions of Kashmir.
“The aircraft was not hit and returned safely with its crew” to an air base near the capital, Captain Rob Newell, a spokesman for the US military relief effort, told The Associated Press.
Pakistani army spokesman Major General Shaukat Sultan told the AP that he doubted any such attack took place, noting that road-clearing engineers were blasting a road near where the helicopters were flying.
“The blast was huge enough to kick up dust which the pilot probably misunderstood as rocket fire,” he said, adding that Pakistani army troops carried out a search operation and spoke to witnesses on the ground, none of whom reported a rocket attack.
Newell said the four American crew members, a Pakistani pilot and a freelance journalist on board at the time were not hurt. Newell said the US Army and the Pakistani government were investigating.
Some 24 US military helicopters, mostly heavy-lifting Chinooks diverted from fighting Operation Enduring Freedom in neighbouring Afghanistan, are helping Pakistan recover from the October 8 quake, which is believed to have killed about 80,000 people and left millions homeless and desperately needing supplies before the harsh Himalayan winter closes in.
Kashmir – one of two regions hit hardest by the earthquake – is a focus for Islamic militants seeking to gain independence from India, or a merger with Pakistan. While Pakistan denies that militants use its territory as a base, their presence is barely hidden.
Militants have been openly helping with the quake relief effort on both sides of Kashmir.
A spokesman for one prominent militant group, Jaish-e-Mohammed – which is alleged to have links to al Qaida and claimed responsibility for a suicide car bombing that killed at least four people in Indian-held Kashmir today – said it would not contemplate attacking any foreigners, including Americans, who are helping survivors of quake.
“All those foreigners, including Americans, who are helping our people in the quake-hit areas are our honourable guests,” spokesman Sahrai Baba told the AP, adding, “we cannot even think of doing anything against them.”
Comm. Nick Balice, another US military spokesman, said relief flights had restarted today after a delay of a couple of hours because of poor visibility. He said US choppers would stay “a safe distance from the affected area” where the reported attack happened yesterday.
A US military official said the military stood by its account of the incident.
“The guy who saw it was one of the crew members who had been in Afghanistan for many months before coming over here,” said the official. “He had been shot at numerous times and he knows what an RPG looks and feels like.”
A senior Pakistani army official said that until the US military had completed its own investigation, its helicopters would not fly deep into Kashmir, but only to the main city of Muzaffarabad, and to Balakot and Batagram in neighbouring North West Frontier Province.
NATO officials in Islamabad said it was unclear whether the helicopter was fired upon and said their relief operations would continue.
“We don’t have any safety concerns,” Air Cmdr. Andy Walton told reporters. “We don’t intend to fly anywhere other than to guarantee the humanitarian assistance. We will not put ourselves at risk of these kinds of attack.”
While most Pakistanis have expressed gratitude towards the US and the international community for their help since the quake, some have doubted their intentions, with rumours that American military personnel are carrying out undercover reconnaissance operations, taking pictures of Pakistani nuclear facilities, or searching for al Qaida militants.
US officials hope its support for the relief effort can temper largely negative perceptions of America in this Islamic nation. Although Pakistan is a key US ally in the war on terrorism, many of the 150 million population opposed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Meanwhile, UN officials said yesterday that reserves to get vitally needed relief supplies to earthquake victims are dwindling dangerously low.
Donors have pledged only £74.2m (€108.9m) of the £311.5m (€457.2m)sought by the United Nations for emergency quake aid.
The UN’s World Food Programme has only enough money – £5.6m (€8.2m)– to rent a third of the helicopters it needs to mount a round-the-clock operation into the winter, said spokesman Simon Pluess.
A convoy of six trucks carrying tents, blankets and medical supplies from Medecins Sans Frontieres was halted by a landslide that blocked the Kaghan Valley road, about nine miles north of Balakot, today, an AP reporter saw. The convoy, heading to villages a few miles down the road, was waiting for earthmovers to clear the way.