Alarm mounted across the world on Friday for hundreds of thousands of survivors of the Pakistan earthquake still awaiting help two weeks after their world collapsed, with a freezing winter looming.
The top United Nations aid official was so incensed by what he saw as a woefully inadequate international response to the most difficult relief operation the world has ever seen he called on NATO to stage a massive airlift to get survivors to safety.
That would mean helicopters, the only means of getting quickly deep into the rugged Himalayan foothills of Pakistani Kashmir and North West Frontier Province where 50,000 people are known to have died, a number expected to rise substantially.
"You must rest assured that NATO fully realises the gravity of the situation," NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said. "NATO will act accordingly."
But NATO, which was to consider U.N. emergency relief coordination Jan Egeland's airlift demand in Brussels on Friday, doesn't have many of the kind of helicopters such an operation would require.
The closest source of helicopters would be India, but it has fought two of its three wars with Pakistan over Kashmir, which both claim.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has told India he would accept helicopters, but only if they came without crews given the enormous political sensitivity of the issue.
India said no and Egeland called on the two governments to figure out a compromise fast.
"These discussions are now holding up a bigger operation and they shouldn't," he said. "I would want them to work out a compromise immediately."
The few roads into the high hills were crumpled, buried by landslides, even swept away by the October 8 quake and aid officials on the ground are worried that countless more people, without adequate shelter, cold and miserable, could die.
The lack of roads means supplies cannot reach them in any significant quantities by an aid fleet of fewer than 100 helicopters. Soldiers are using mules, horses and donkeys, even carrying supplies up on their backs. So are villagers.
"We went to one village at 1,300 metres and temperatures were dropping to minus five at night and there were old people whose only shelter was plastic sheeting," said Mia Turner of the World Food Programme.
"Shelter is crucial and people don't get that soon there will be a crisis of a different kind, people will start dying of exposure." But tents of a kind which can stand up to the harsh Himalayan winter are in short supply and Pakistan pleads daily for the world to send more.
U.N. coordinator Jesper Lund said international aid agencies planned to send 83,000 tents, "all they have in the world".
"But it's still a drop in the ocean. We need hundreds of thousands, at least 450,000, but that's only a rough estimate."
So the U.N. was looking at alternative solutions, starting with shelter kits containing plastic sheeting, a saw, bamboo, rope, a shovel and axes, he said, reports Reuters. I.L.