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Flood-hit Pakistan needs $500 million, U.N. official says

A United Nations official warned Wednesday that at least half a billion dollars was needed to help keep alive people affected by the devastating floods in Pakistan.
Image: Pakistani aid workers offload food supplies
Pakistani aid workers offload food supplies from a U.S. Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter to aid flood survivors in Kallam Valley Tuesday.Behrouz Mehri / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: staff and news service reports

A United Nations official warned Wednesday that at least a half billion dollars was needed to help keep alive people affected by the devastating floods in Pakistan.

The BBC reported that the U.N. was planning to issue a fresh appeal for help from the international community.

U.N. emergency relief coordinator John Holmes said he hoped to raise about $500 million, the U.K. station reported.

"And that's very much an initial figure probably for the first three months, and that's based on the best assessments we can do at the moment," he told the BBC.

"Our immediate focus when we launch the appeal will be on the immediate humanitarian relief needs to actually keep people alive, to give them the basic minimum to stay alive, to survive," Holmes added.

The floods have killed more than 1,600 people, forced 2 million from their homes and disrupted the lives of about 14 million people — 8 percent of the country's population.

Roiling floods triggered by unusually heavy monsoon rain have scoured the Indus river basin, leaving a trail of destruction from mountains in the north to the plains of Sindh province in the south.

The United Nations has described the disaster as the biggest the country has ever faced and said it will cost billions of dollars to rehabilitate the victims and rebuild ruined infrastructure.

'Make their bank accounts bigger'
Despite this, Pakistani Taliban militants have urged the government to reject Western aid, saying it would only be siphoned off by corrupt officials.

"We urge the government not to take Western aid," a Pakistani Taliban spokesman, Azam Tariq, said by telephone from an undisclosed location.

"The government in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the center are desperate to get it, not for the people affected but to make their bank accounts bigger," he said, referring to the northwestern province hardest hit by the floods.

There is concern that Islamist charities with links to militant groups have been seeking to fill the gap left by what many see as the inadequate response by Pakistani authorities.

President Asif Ali Zardari, under fire for his government's perceived sluggish response to the floods, returned home Tuesday from foreign visits he embarked on as the disaster was unfolding.

Zardari, the widower of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, was in the southern city of Karachi Wednesday and it was not clear if he would visit the disaster zone, officials said.

Zardari, whose popularity has never matched that of his charismatic wife, enraged his critics by going ahead with visits to meet leaders in Britain and France after the floods began.

But in an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal, Zardari said he had used the trip to mobilize foreign assistance, money and food for the flood victims.

The British government pledged $24 million in aid, following his meeting with U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, Zardari said.

"As I return to Pakistan, I bring back tangible results that will help the flood victims in the short run and lay the foundations for national recovery in the long run," he said.

'Hungry people can't eat symbols'
"I might have benefited personally from the political symbolism of being in the country at the time of natural disaster," he said. "But hungry people can't eat symbols. The situation demanded action, and I acted to mobilize the world."

The military, which has ruled Pakistan for more than half of its 63-year history, has taken the lead in relief efforts, reinforcing the faith many Pakistanis have in the ability of their armed forces and highlighting the comparative ineffectiveness of civilian governments.

Analysts say the armed forces are not likely try to take over the country as they have vowed to stay out of politics and are busy fighting militants.

The United States announced an additional $20 million in help Tuesday amid growing concern over the political, economic and security ramifications of the disaster.

The U.S. needs a stable Pakistan to help it end a nine-year war against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The new aid brought to $55 million the amount of funds committed by Washington to relief efforts, along with U.S. military helicopters that have been airlifting survivors trapped by the floods.

Hundreds of roads and bridges have been destroyed and waters have not yet crested in the south, meaning the situation could get worse in Pakistan, a U.S. ally.

In Pakistan, Thursday will see the start of Ramadan when Muslims fast, abstaining from food and drink from dawn to dusk. In other areas, Ramadan began Wednesday.

But despite the hunger and hardship, for most people not observing the fast during the most sacred of months was unthinkable.

"We will fast but we don't know how will be break the fast, whether we will find any food or not. Only Allah knows," Nusrat Shah said as she sat beside a bridge in Sukkur, where she had laid out bedding for her family under the sky.

"Pray for us," Shah said, as she made tea over a smoky fire.