Pope urges swift aid for Asian earthquake victims


Pope Benedict urged the international community today to respond quickly and generously to the earthquake centred on Pakistan.

"I pray that the international community will be swift and generous in its response to the disaster," the Pope told the faithful gathered in St. Peter's Square for his weekly blessing.

"I commend to God's loving mercy all those who have died and I extend my deepest sympathy to the many thousands who are injured or bereaved," he said, speaking in English.

Rescue teams and aid pledges poured into Pakistan from around the world today after a devastating earthquake that killed about 20,000 people.

"We are rushing against the clock here," said a spokeswoman for the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, as rescue workers struggled to pull survivors of yesterday's 7.6 magnitude earthquake from the rubble.

An eight-member UN team had begun coordinating the relief effort in the hardest hit areas, the spokeswoman said, and teams from Turkey, China, Britain and Germany were on the ground.

The greatest need was for field hospitals, water purification and blankets, she said.

"The logistical problems will be big. We are going to need more helicopters for example."

Yesterday the Irish Government pledged an initial €1 million in aid to assist with relief efforts in northern Pakistan and India.

Minister of State for Development Cooperation and Human Rights, Mr Conor Lenihan said: "The earthquake which struck Northern Pakistan appears to have had devastating consequences."

He said the funding will be available for the Red Cross and Red Crescent family which is very experienced and is present on the ground through its local networks.

The United States, expressing gratitude that Pakistan had stepped forward after hurricane Katrina struck the US coast last month, said it would provide $100,000 in emergency aid funds and also offered US military helicopters.

President George W. Bush, who counts Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf as a key ally in the US-led war against terrorism, said further assistance would be provided as needed.

"My thoughts and prayers are with those affected by this horrible tragedy," he said in a statement, echoing an outpouring of sympathy from across the world.

Australia, Japan, the Netherlands, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were among others dispatching help, as the official death toll in Pakistan jumped today from less than 2,000 to 19,400.

The quake, which Musharraf's spokesman called the worst devastation in Pakistan's history, also killed more than 550 people in India and at least one in Afghanistan.

The World Bank has offered $20 million to Pakistan to cope with the devastating earthquake that killed about 20,000 people, bank president Paul Wolfowitz said today.

Wolfowitz, who is on a visit to Tokyo, also urged international donors to coordinate efforts to help South Asian nations battered by the earthquake, rather than trying to compete over aid.

The Swiss government put an aircraft on standby to fly a UN disaster and coordination team to Pakistan, the worst hit of the three countries, where officials said some 40,000 people had been injured by the quake.

UN International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) executive director Ann Veneman said children made up half the population of the quake affected areas and would be vulnerable to hunger, cold, illness and trauma.