The death toll from the earthquake that devastated an impoverished valley in southwestern Pakistan rose to 215 on Thursday, as authorities scrambled to help survivors sleeping rough in the frigid mountains.
The 6.4-magnitude quake hit an area of Pakistan's Baluchistan province near the Afghan frontier before dawn on Wednesday, demolishing an estimated 2,000 homes in a string of villages. Officials on Thursday declared the rescue phase of the operation over after residents and emergency workers mounted a final search for survivors or bodies buried among the rubble.
With reports still coming in from outlying areas, provincial government minister Zamrak Khan said the toll had risen to 215 and noted that hospitals were still treating dozens of seriously injured people.
The quake left an estimated 15,000 people homeless in the hard-hit Ziarat district, triggering a relief effort that saw the army airlifting supplies and medical teams into the region. Officials said several thousand people spent on Wednesday night in tents in camps erected by the military. However, they failed to reach all the outlying areas before temperatures plunged to around freezing point.
In the hillside hamlet of Kawas, dozens of people slept in the open near the rubble of their simple mud and stone houses. "We passed the night shivering and with the children crying. There were five of us wrapped in one blanket," said Ala Uddin, a 30-year-old farmer camped with about 15 relatives in an apple orchard.
He said relief supplies had yet to reach them, though people from other villages had brought them food.
In Wam, another wrecked village, rescuers on Thursday searched the rubble of the last house left unexamined, but found only an injured donkey, said Haji Khan, a volunteer from a nearby village. Complicating the relief effort, relatives of those killed in Wam were arriving to pay condolences.
"Oh God, what have you done?" wailed one woman from Quetta, who said she had lost two brothers, two sons and a sister-in-law. She didn't give her name.
The latest quake comes at a precarious time for Pakistan, with the civilian government battling al-Qaida and Taliban attacks as well as a looming economic crisis.
At least three hard-line Islamic organizations were quick to aid quake survivors, according to an Associated Press reporter who toured the area.
Among them was Jamaat-ud-Dawa, designated a terrorist group by the U.S. government for links to Muslim separatists fighting in India's portion of the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir. The group set up relief camps and won friends among survivors of a 7.6-magnitude quake that devastated Kashmir and northern Pakistan in October 2005, killing about 80,000 people and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless.
Baluchistan is home to a long-running separatist movement, but has so far been spared the level of militant violence seen in the northwestern tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan. Pakistan is prone to seismic upheavals since it sits atop an area of collision between the Eurasian and Indian tectonic plates, the same force responsible for the birth of the Himalayan mountains. Baluchistan's capital, Quetta, was devastated by a 7.5-magnitude temblor in 1935 that killed more than 30,000 people. Countries including the United States and Germany have offered to help with the latest disaster. However, officials say they can cope without a big international aid effort.