Pakistan President Zardari tries to ease flood anger

Media caption,
The Indus river is now 18 miles wide due to the floods

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has tried to fend off public anger at his handling of the country's floods crisis by visiting affected areas for the first time.

Mr Zardari met flood victims in Sukkur in Sindh province.

His spokesman said the president had promised houses would be rebuilt.

However some politicians said this was too little, too late, with critics still angry he did not cut short his tour of Europe to deal with the crisis.

The floods have affected 14 million people and left at least 1,600 dead.

Meanwhile, a shipload of US marines and helicopters has arrived to help with the relief efforts.

'Enjoying cocktails'

Mr Zardari was briefed about the flood damage as he toured Sukkur.

He inspected the Sukkur Barrage, a key flood barrier in Sindh, which has been under pressure from the massive volume of floodwaters flowing down the Indus river.

His spokesman, Farhatullah Babar, told the BBC: "The president heard people's grievances and told them that the government was determined to improve their situation as quickly as possible.

"He distributed relief goods among the families housed at the camp."

Image caption,
President Zardari presents a cheque to a flood victim in Sukkur

But a spokesman of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, Siddiqul Farooq, said the visit was too little, too late.

"He is president of Pakistan and he should behave like a president," Mr Farooq told AFP news agency.

The BBC's Orla Guerin in Islamabad says that only state media were allowed during Mr Zardari's visit to the banks of the Indus river. The television footage was released without sound, our correspondent says, as the president has reason to fear what the people might have to say.

Many Pakistani citizens are still angry at the foreign trip.

Osama Sadoon Memon, from Lahore, told the BBC: "This visit should have taken place weeks ago. He needed to be here rather then enjoying cocktails in luxury hotels abroad at the government's expense."

Farhan Mangi, from Larkana, agreed the president should have cut short the trip, but said Mr Zardari could regain the initiative by "ensuring the speedy search and rescue operations and then rehabilitating the refugees".

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has also been out viewing affected areas, flying over parts of Punjab, Sindh and Baluchistan.

He said: "We need more help from our international friends. We need more such helicopters because the magnitude of the destruction was far more [than first thought]."

Later, the prime minister and president met each other in Islamabad to discuss the crisis.

Official media reported that the men thanked the UN for launching a donors' conference, and saluted the bravery of the people of Pakistan.

The USS Peleliu has now arrived off Pakistan, carrying helicopters and 1,000 marines to deliver aid.

The UN launched an appeal for $459m in emergency aid on Wednesday.

The UN humanitarian co-ordinator in Pakistan, Martin Mogwanja, says $195m has so far been pledged.

Rain is continuing to fall in some parts of Pakistan, with dams still threatened in Sindh and the monsoons not due to end for several weeks.

The deluge has caused extensive damage to key crops - such as wheat, cotton and sugar cane - in a country where agriculture is an economic lynchpin.

Food and Agriculture Minister Nazar Muhammad Gondal told the BBC the disaster had caused "huge losses" to its crops.

BBC Urdu will transmit six daily bulletins in Urdu and Pashto providing vital information including how to stay safe, avoid disease and access aid. Special programmes will be broadcast each day in Urdu at 12.30, 15.30 and 18.30 and in Pashto at 12.45, 15.45 and 18.45 (local times).

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