An Islamic charity accused of terror links by the United States pledged Friday to build 1,000 temporary homes for survivors of the Pakistan earthquake, a move likely to expand the group's influence in the impoverished region.
Authorities said the death toll would likely top 300 from the 6.4-magnitude quake that hit the mountainous area early Wednesday, destroying 3,000 houses and leaving some 15,000 people homeless.
The affected area of Baluchistan province is inhabited mainly by Pashtuns, the same ethnic group from which the Taliban draws most of its strength. The region has not seen the level of militant activity common in other districts along the Afghan border.
"In Kashmir and Afghanistan, we fought against the enemy, but here we are trying to help quake survivors in the name of God and humanity," said Abdul Rauf, a member of Jamaat-ud-Dawa as he sat in a camp in the hard-hit village of Wam. "We have no other motive."
Jamaat-ud-Dawa was designated a terrorist group by the U.S. government in 2006 because of links to Muslim separatists fighting in India's portion of the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir. It denies involvement in militancy.
Baluchistan provincial minister Zamrak Khan said 215 people were confirmed dead, but reports from four districts indicated a number of victims had been buried without informing authorities and that the real toll was probably "somewhere above 300."
Pakistani authorities have vowed to help all those affected, but the suffering of survivors was still apparent Friday.
Troops and foreign relief agencies are scrambling to help communities in remote valleys, handing out food, blankets and tents to ward off near freezing temperatures. UNICEF said the quake affected about 108,000 people, with half of them being children.
Relief workers were still finding mountain villages destroyed by the earthquake that have yet to receive aid, the Red Cross said Saturday.
Many residents complain they have received little help.
At a clinic in the devastated village of Kawas, Dr. Nek Mohammed said he had treated 300 children since Thursday and that he hoped medicine would arrive soon.
"Most of them are developing the symptoms of pneumonia and that is inevitable given the serious cold they are exposed to," Mohammed said, as scores of people squatted outside waiting for treatment.
On Friday, the United States said it would provide an initial $1 million in assistance and was prepared to give more.
Mahdi Hassan, a political commentator, said he believed the Islamic groups had humanitarian motives, noting foreign aid workers were not harmed or harassed after a 2005 quake.
Jamaat-ud-Dawa and other hard-line groups aided survivors of that quake, which killed 80,000 people in Kashmir and northern Pakistan, saving lives as well as winning friends.
"These jihadi people were active in Kashmir, and they are not the type of people who support 'Talibanization'," Hassan said. "This time too they are involved in relief and rehabilitation work. They should not be discouraged while doing a good job."
Many villagers, accustomed to a life of hardship and self-sufficiency, were not waiting for aid to arrive.
In Wam Kotal, a village in the shadow of a towering mountain, Haji Abdul Latif, a turbaned 60-year-old, watched as a son and a nephew began clearing the rubble of their house so they could rebuild.
"We have no option except to help ourselves," he said. "Snow will start falling soon and we have no place to live."