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Under-fire Zardari visits Pakistan flood victims

This handout picture released by the Press Information Department shows Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari (2nd R) presenting a cheque to an elderly flood survivor during a visit to a relief camp in Sukkur on August 12, 2010. Zardari sought to fend off a public outcry over his response to Pakistan's catastrophic floods by visiting a hard-hit area for the first time and handing out relief. Photo courtesy AFP.
by Staff Writers
Sukkur, Pakistan (AFP) Aug 12, 2010
President Asif Ali Zardari Thursday tried to fend off an outcry over his response to Pakistan's catastrophic floods by visiting a hard-hit area for the first time and handing out relief.

His visit came as the United States increased its financial contribution to the flood relief effort by 21 million dollars, signalling Washington's support for a key ally in combating terrorism.

Zardari came under fire from victims, the political opposition and critics for failing last week to cut short a visit to Europe to deal personally with what is now the country's worst humanitarian crisis.

Two million people require shelter after fleeing flood-hit areas, as tents spring up along main roads and on the edge of major towns and cities.

The president visited Sukkur and was briefed about the damage and the relief effort in the densely populated southern province of Sindh, where Sukkur is located.

Zardari has defended his decision not to cut short his overseas tour, saying he used talks in London and Paris to drum up desperately needed aid.

But his visit to Sindh was criticised by the popular main opposition party Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz as too little too late: "He is president of Pakistan and he should behave like a president," said spokesman Siddiqul Farooq.

State television broadcast silent footage of Zardari, who comes from Sindh, wearing a traditional cap and patting the head of an old woman at a relief camp, before visiting Sukkur barrage to view the flooding.

A local official told AFP the president had distributed relief goods among flood victims at a camp in a college and had assured survivors the government was doing all it could to help.

Pakistan says 15-20 million people face direct or indirect harm from the floods. The United Nations believes 1,600 people have died, while Islamabad has confirmed 1,343 deaths.

At one camp in Nowshera, in the northwest, three-month-old Aisha lay on the floor screeching in the morning heat, the air laced with the stench of raw sewage and buzzing with mosquitoes.

"She cries the whole night. I don't know what illness she has, but the doctors told me she will be alright," said mother Shakila.

The government has admitted to being overwhelmed and hardline Islamic charities have conducted a highly visible aid effort.

The UN has appealed for 460 million dollars in foreign aid and says billions will be needed in the long term, with survivors facing grim conditions in makeshift tent cities and diseases flourishing in the unbearable heat.

The UN humanitarian coordinator in Pakistan, Martin Mogwanja, said pledges of 195 million dollars had already been made.

The United States, which has put Pakistan on the front line of its war on Al-Qaeda, began dispatching Marine helicopters from an amphibious assault ship to help in the aid operation.

With its latest aid pledge, the total US financial contribution to the flood relief effort comes to 76 million dollars.

"These funds are being provided to UN agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross and non-governmental organisations to provide emergency shelter, food, health care, clean water and sanitation," the State Department said.

After touring flood-hit areas with diplomats, foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said: "An estimated 15-20 million people are believed to have been affected.

"We immediately need tents for shelter, food for survivors, water purification plant and medicines for cholera, malaria and other water-borne diseases."

In the south, a mass exodus of people was straining local economies and infrastructure, said Sindh government spokesman Jameel Soomro.

"We have a plan to shift flood victims to tent cities.... More than 100,000 people have arrived in Sukkur from different flood-hit areas, which is more than five percent of the city's population," he said.

Arif Mehmood, Pakistan's chief meteorologist, told AFP that water levels were falling in parts of Sindh, Punjab and the northwest.

Pakistani and English cricket chiefs are planning an exhibition match between Pakistani players and cricket stars from various countries to raise funds for the relief effort, the Pakistan Cricket Board said.

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