Desperate villagers clawed through piles of mud and timber looking for victims of an earthquake that collapsed thousands of homes in southwestern Pakistan before dawn Wednesday, killing at least 170 people.
Army planes began flying in tents, medical supplies and blankets to the Baluchistan province, but some 15,000 homeless people in the impoverished region faced a night in the open in near freezing temperatures following the 6.4-magnitude quake.
“I have lost everything,” said Haji Shahbaz, mourning the deaths of 17 relatives in Wam, a hard-hit village. “Nothing is left here, and now life is worthless for me.” He wailed, tears streaking his dust-caked face.
The quake comes at an especially precarious time, with the civilian government battling al-Qaida and Taliban attacks while grappling with a punishing economic crisis.
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As the army and other government agencies rushed to help, at least three hard-line Islamic organizations also were quick to aid survivors, according to an Associated Press reporter.
Among them was Jamaat-ud-Dawa, designated a terrorist group by the U.S. for its 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.
Wednesday's quake hit before sunrise. Witnesses reported two strong jolts about an hour apart, with the second at 5:10 a.m. causing the destruction. It collapsed the flimsy mud-brick and timber houses common to the region.
The worst-hit area was the Ziarat valley, where hundreds of houses were destroyed in at least eight villages, including some buried in landslides triggered by the quake.
Pakistan is prone to seismic upheavals since it sits atop an area of collision between the Eurasian and Indian tectonic plates.