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Relief choppers grounded in flood-ravaged Pakistan

Bad weather grounded helicopters carrying emergency supplies to Pakistan's flood-ravaged northwest Friday amid warnings the worst monsoon rains in decades would bring more destruction to a nation already reeling from Islamist violence.
Image: Pakistani army soldiers in a helicopter rescue families stranded by flood water
Pakistani army soldiers in a helicopter rescue families stranded by floodwaters in Sanawan near Multan in central Pakistan on Thursday.Khalid Tanveer / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Bad weather grounded helicopters carrying emergency supplies to Pakistan's flood-ravaged northwest Friday amid warnings the worst monsoon rains in decades would bring more destruction to a nation already reeling from Islamist violence.

U.S. military personnel waiting to fly Chinooks to the upper reaches of the hard-hit Swat Valley were frustrated by the storms, which dumped more rain on a region where many thousands are already living in tents or crammed into public buildings.

Over the last week, floods have spread from the northwest down Pakistan, killing more than 1,600 people and affecting more than 3 million others. Much of the destruction has come from the mighty Indus River, which in better times irrigates vast swaths of farmland.

Some 30,000 Pakistan soldiers are rebuilding bridges, delivering food and setting up relief camps in the northwest, which is the main battleground in the fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban. Foreign countries and the United Nations have donated millions of dollars.

The United Nations said 4 million people had been affected, 1.5 million severely, meaning their homes had been damaged or destroyed. Earlier, Nadim Ahmed, the head of the National Disaster Management Authority, said 12 million people had so far been affected by the floods and 650,000 houses destroyed. He did not elaborate.

The United Nations said the disaster was "on a par" with the 2005 Kashmir earthquake — which killed about 73,000 people — in terms of the numbers of people needing assistance and damage to infrastructure.

In a televised address to the nation, Prime Minister Raza Yousuf Gilani said it was the worst flooding in Pakistan's 63-year history.

Islamist groups have staged their own relief efforts in the northwest. One, Falah-e-Insaniat, is a charity with alleged ties to Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant group accused in the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India, that killed 166 people.

Floods hit Indian Kashmir region Meanwhile, the death toll in flashfloods that hit the remote mountainous region of Ladakh in Indian-held Kashmir has risen to 103.  The floods have injured more than 370 others, state police chief Kuldeep Khoda said Friday.

Police and paramilitary soldiers have pulled out hundreds of people from the mud and debris that have buried hundreds of homes but their efforts were hampered by gushing water and mud sweeping down from the steep mountainsides.

Telecommunication towers have toppled or are badly damaged while main highways connecting the popular tourist destination to the rest of Kashmir were only partially open.

The area is a high-altitude desert about 11,500 feet above sea level, and normally experiences very low precipitation.

Zardari criticized over Europe trip
Pakistan's government has come under criticism for not doing enough, especially since President Asif Ali Zardari chose to go ahead with a trip to Europe at the height of the crisis.  The president is meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron in an effort to strengthen cooperation in fighting terrorism.

Zardari's decision to visit France and Britain when more than 1,600 people have been killed in Pakistan's biggest floods in 80 years has angered many Pakistanis.

But in an apparent attempt to appease anger, the president's son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, canceled plans to attend a rally for British Pakistanis in the city of Birmingham on Saturday, saying he would stay in London to organize donations for flood victims.

Cameron and President Zardari are also set to discuss international response to the floods.  Britain has donated 10 million pounds ($15.8 million) for flood relief efforts.  Britain is a major aid donor to Pakistan, having pledged 665 million pounds to Pakistan from 2009-2013, and nearly a million people of Pakistani origin live in Britain.

Back in Pakistan, Amal Masud, a spokeswoman for the National Disaster Management Authority, said all helicopters currently stationed in the northwest were grounded because of poor weather.

Saleh Farooqi, head of the Provincial Disaster Management Authority in southern Sindh province, said authorities had evacuated about 200,000 people from areas where floodwaters could hit, but many more were still living in the danger zone.

"About 500,000 people living near the Indus River do not realize the gravity of the situation, and they do not know how fast the water is rushing to their areas," he said.

River embankments were being strengthened and people evacuated from low-lying villages in the province's Sukkur district, regional Irrigation Minister Jam Saifullah Dharejo said.

About 85 U.S. military service people are taking part in the relief activities.

On Thursday, six helicopters picked up about 800 stranded people and dropped off emergency aid.

The United States is unpopular in Pakistan, and Washington is hoping the relief missions will help improve its image. But the missions could draw criticism from Islamist politicians and others in Pakistan who are hostile to the idea of American boots on the ground, even if they are helping after a disaster.

The U.S. military carried out larger operations in the aftermath of the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, as it did in predominantly Muslim Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami. Those missions were credited with boosting Washington's reputation there.