CHILDREN separated from their families after the recent earthquake are at risk from human traffickers and childless parents, relief workers warned yesterday following the attempted abduction of a 12-year-old girl as she recovered in a Pakistan hospital.
Thousands of children, many suffering grievous wounds, have been flown by helicopter from the worst-hit areas of the 8 October quake that devastated Kashmir and north-western provinces.
An unknown number are unaccompanied, because their parents are dead or lost, but there are few safeguards to prevent strangers from snatching them away.
"We are very worried," said Julia Spry-Leverton of UNICEF.
In the children's ward of the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences in Islamabad, Huma Kazmi yesterday told how a woman posing as her aunt tried to persuade her to leave the hospital.
Huma, who was pulled from the rubble of her village school after three days without food or water, had broken legs and badly infected wounds. The army flew her from Muzaffarabad to the institute, where the corridors were already overflowing with the sick and injured.
She regained consciousness next day to find a strange woman sitting by her bed.
"She said she was my aunt," the girl told The Scotsman, sitting up in her bed and gripping a teddy bear. "She said, 'You are all alone here. Come to my house and I'll take care of you. There's another hospital nearby'."
Huma didn't know the young woman, but she alerted hospital staff to her suspicions and the woman fled.
"We already suspected something was wrong," said the ward doctor Irshad Khan. "It wasn't normal to want to take such a badly injured child home for treatment."
It was not the only such case. In the next bed lay Jahangir Jamil, a 10-year-old boy who had been claimed by an unknown man who had then disappeared.
Now a policewoman is posted outside the ward door and security guards vet all visitors at the hospital entrance. No child may leave without stringent checks, said the director Dr Anjum Javed.
"We check their parents' national ID cards, with the police and, if necessary, with the intelligence agencies," he said.
He stressed that the threat of child abduction remained small - just seven of the 960 children at the institute were unaccompanied and all were being monitored.
But the issue has worried Pakistani authorities keen to prevent cases such as those which occurred in south Asia after last December's tsunami. In the most notorious incident, nine different couples claimed an infant survivor known as "Baby 81" until a DNA test identified his real parents.
Official adoption is uncommon in Pakistan, where orphans are easily taken in by close-knit family networks. But experts fear such traditional safety nets are now being strained, exposing children to predators.
Every year hundreds of Pakistani youngsters are smuggled to oil-rich Middle Eastern countries for use as jockeys in camel races. Over 400 minors were returned from the United Arab Emirates earlier this summer.
"Child trafficking is an issue throughout south Asia and it's a growing concern," said Serap Maktav, a child protection officer with UNICEF.
Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz has ordered that all earthquake orphans must be registered and taken into government care. None will be put up for adoption.
The International Committee of the Red Cross will undertake the reunification of separated families.
Meanwhile, the UN World Food Programme yesterday warned that half a million earthquake survivors had yet to receive relief supplies, and Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, appealed to the international community for more tents.
Taking advantage of a break in recent poor weather, Pakistani and US military helicopters yesterday delivered aid at a brisk pace to Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani Kashmir.
Relief workers rushed to set up field hospitals to treat thousands of stranded, injured people. James Morris, executive director of the WFP, said the relief effort was one of the most challenging the world had faced.
"The aid agencies have managed to give some help to hundreds of thousands of people, but there are an estimated half a million more people out there in desperate need, who no one has managed to reach," Mr Morris said in Dubai. "They need shelter, blankets and medical assistance - then food and clean water."
Authorities warned that exposure and infections could drive the death toll up from 54,000 as the harsh Himalayan winter loomed. Landslides caused by the earthquake cut off many roads, and they could take weeks to clear.
Some 1,360 people died in the Indian-held part of divided Kashmir. Conflict in Indian Kashmir continued yesterday with suspected Islamic militants killing the state's education minister during a raid that also left at least three others dead.
Soldiers were exchanging fire with militants holed up at the home of the minister, Ghulam Nabi Lone, police said. The attack came despite an order from the United Jihad Council, an umbrella organisation of militant groups, to suspend attacks.
India has provided some aid to Pakistan, but turned down a Pakistani suggestion that it send military helicopters - without crews - to help with relief work. Pakistan, which has fought two of its three wars with India over Kashmir, said it could not have the Indian military involved directly in relief efforts.
Some 80,000 people were injured in the quake. The UN has estimated 3.3 million were left needing food and shelter ahead of the approaching winter, with snow already falling in some affected areas.
Gen Musharraf travelled by helicopter to the Kashmiri town of Bagh, where he met survivors with broken limbs and other injuries. He said shelter was a priority.
"We gave all the tents that the army had. We bought all that were in Pakistan. Now we are looking abroad, in the international community," he said.