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Goodbye Pakistan; US ends quake relief mission

Written by: Staff
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ISLAMABAD, Mar 30 (Reuters) Hoping to have garnered goodwill among a nation known for its anti-American sentiments, US soldiers today left quake-stricken Pakistan to end the US military's biggest relief mission since the Berlin Airlift.

''You have written history in a very major way,'' US ambassador Ryan C Crocker told a final contingent of 200 soldiers, comparing their mission to one launched in 1948 to overcome a Soviet blockade of West Berlin.

''You have also written a new chapter in how nations work together,'' the ambassador said during a farewell ceremony at an airbase near Islamabad.

Helped by unseasonably mild weather, the massive relief effort helped avert a feared second wave of death over the winter months in the Himalayan foothills of northern Pakistan and Kashmir, and the US troops' departure was timed for the onset of spring.

At the height of the six-month mission there were 1,200 US servicemen and women mostly medics, engineers and logistical support staff involved in an international effort to help about three million people made destitute by the quake.

The huge Chinook helicopters flown in within 48 hours of the October 8 earthquake that killed more than 73,000 Pakistanis, became known as ''Angels of Mercy''.

US officials said the Chinooks would make some final sorties tomorrow for the UN World Food Programme before relocating to neighbouring Afghanistan.

At the start of the mission, 24 U.S. military helicopters, including 17 Chinooks, supported the Pakistani-led relief efforts but ''as the relief matured, 12 Chinooks and four Australian Blackhawk helicopters provided continuous relief airlift support'', a US statement said.

Flying more than 5,000 sorties, they delivered more than 15,000 tonnes of humanitarian aid and evacuated more than 3,000 injured in over 200 days.

''This was a Herculean effort, one the world will never forget,'' Rear Admiral Michael LeFever, commander of the US Disaster Assistance Centre in Pakistan said, commending the air and ground crews' work.

Crocker said the United States would remain engaged in Pakistan's post-quake relief and reconstruction effort for which it has promised to provide 200 million dollars over the next few years besides 100 million dollars committed by the US private sector.

The withdrawal of the US troops began last month, and a near 1,000-strong NATO contingent packed up on February 1 after the Pakistani government said it would not be required to extend its 90-day mission.

REUTERS SB HS1836

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