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Last Updated: Tuesday, 31 January 2006, 17:32 GMT
Nato winds up Kashmir relief work

By Aamer Ahmed Khan
BBC News, Karachi

Nato troops wait at Pakistan's Chakala airbase to leave for Spain
Nato troops were primarily posted in Bagh district
Nato forces in Pakistan are winding up operations after completing their 90-day relief and rescue mission in the quake-hit areas of Kashmir.

The last of the 1,000-strong force of engineers, medics and air crew will leave Pakistan over the next few days.

Nato had been working primarily in Bagh district of Pakistan-administered Kashmir - an area badly hit by last October's earthquake.

This was Nato's first relief mission in a non-Nato country.

More than 73,000 people were killed and millions were rendered homeless by the 8 October quake.

'Respect'

"We have left behind an image of Nato as a force for good," Nato's chief of disaster relief, Andrew Walton, told reporters in Islamabad.

British soldiers and locals tackling fires in quake-hit Bagh district
Local people praise Nato troops for their rescue work

He said, when they first arrived in Pakistan, they saw an area that was in shock at the scale of the devastation and the number of deaths.

"And as we leave, what we can see now is hope, and people who can recognise they have a future" he said.

During its 90-day mission, Nato delivered nearly 18,000 tents, over 500,000 blankets, nearly 17,500 stoves, more than 31,500 mattresses, 45,800 sleeping bags and tons of medical supplies.

It was also involved in rebuilding roads and setting up temporary medical and residential facilities for the survivors.

But survivors are more likely to remember its contribution in removing the debris of collapsed buildings which helped hundreds recover the bodies of their dead relatives.

Nato troops earned themselves widespread praise and admiration from the locals for the respect they showed for those buried under the rubble.

"Whenever they would come across a dead body while removing the rubble, they would stand back with their heads bowed and their hands clasped as a mark of respect," a resident of Bagh said.

"They would not resume their work till the body was removed by the local authorities or the relatives of the dead."

Criticism

For their part, Mr Walton said, Nato troops were going back with enduring memories of the people's hospitality.

A quake survivor makes food outside her tent in Muzaffarabad
Observers say Nato's help could have been used in Muzaffarabad

But the mission was not without its share of controversies.

Pakistan's religious organisations had criticised Pakistan for inviting Nato troops to Kashmir - described by them as a "highly sensitive area" because of Pakistan's tensions with India over the Himalayan territory.

Nato forces were constantly accused of possessing undefined "ulterior motives" throughout their 90-day mission.

But Nato officials say they chose to remain focussed on their work instead of getting bogged down in controversies.

In December last year, they asked Pakistan if it wanted them to extend their mission to beyond the initially stipulated 90-day period, but were told it would not be required.

However, observers say that Nato's efficient work in Bagh could have been extended to Muzaffarabad where survivors are still struggling to remove the debris.

Political considerations may have played a major role in Pakistan's decision not to request an extension in their mission.


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