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Troops Hand Out Gifts In Kashmir

High in the mountains of the Himalayan region of Kashmir, where a few have heard of Christmas, an American admiral surprised hundreds of Muslim children, survivors of the Oct. 8 quake, with gifts of stuffed toys and candies.

Standing outside the U.S. Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, or MASH, near the center of the quake that killed an estimated 87,000 people, Navy Rear Adm. Michael LeFever, the senior U.S. commander of the humanitarian mission, said Americans were sharing the joy of Christmas with Pakistani Muslims the same way they shared their Islamic holiday with their foreign guests.

"We are here for humanitarian work and this effort is part of it," he said Saturday. "You were kind enough to celebrate your Eid with us here, and now this is our turn to share our celebration on one of our holidays here with you people."

Eid al-Fitr, the major Muslim holiday at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, was celebrated earlier this year.

"We are distributing gifts among children as per our tradition, like we do back home in the United States," LeFever said.

"This is so nice to see smiles on children's faces. If this could help bring small innocent children out of the shock they suffered, it would be wonderful."

U.S. military units, including MASH, are part of an international humanitarian relief operation for victims of the massive quake, which also forced more than 3.5 million from their homes as it devastated parts of northwestern Pakistan and the Pakistan-administered Kashmir region.

Separately, in Shinkiari, a Marine Corps medical unit also is providing care for about 200 people a day.

"We have distributed gifts among children in Shinkiari in a similar hospital and now we are seeing the same happiness on children's faces here. Next we'll go to the Australian hospital in Dhani," said U.S. Capt. Rob Neyell, who accompanied LeFever on a quick helicopter Christmas tour.

LeFever had mentioned earlier that one of the popular toys for children in the area was a model of a Chinook helicopter, because people have come to associate American choppers with relief.

Saturday's gifts included the miniature toy, as well as a model fighter jet, tennis rackets, jigsaw puzzles and dolls.

Javed Akbar, a shy 9-year-old, was standing with other kids, holding his mother's hand, when he received a racket and a stuffed yellow bear from an American soldier wearing Santa's hat.

"I would like to play. I say thank you very much for this nice toys," he said quietly.

Nabila Zahid was grateful on behalf of her son, another boy, who got a bag full of candies and a toy.

"I am happy and thankful to these people, who are not only providing better medical treatment to our children, but also food and toys for their joy," she said. "I wish merry Christmas to them. God bless them all for caring for us."

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