US increases aid to flood-ravaged Pakistan

SUKKUR, Pakistan (AFP) – The United States has upped its aid to flood-ravaged Pakistan and announced a visit by a political heavyweight to show its commitment to a fractious ally where anti-US feeling runs high.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, attempting to fend off anger at his own response to the disaster, visited a hard-hit area for the first time on Thursday and handed out relief.

A Pakistani mother tries to calm her crying child in her tent at a school converted to a camp for flood survivors on the outskirts of Nowshera on August 12, 2010. AFP

He came under fire from victims and the opposition for failing to cut short a trip to Europe to deal personally with what is now the country's worst humanitarian crisis.

US Senator John Kerry will visit Pakistan next week to raise public awareness and drum up donations, an official said as Washington increased its contribution to the relief effort by 21 million dollars.

"This will be a critical visit to help raise the profile among publics both in the US and internationally," said Dan Feldman, the US deputy special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Pakistan is a top US priority due to concerns over Islamic extremism in the nuclear-armed nation, and as US-led forces battle to quell the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan.

But while US military helicopters and aid packages have been important to the relief effort, hardline Islamic charities have been still more visible on the ground in distributing desperately needed food, water and medicine.

Kerry, a former presidential candidate who chairs the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, will be the first senior US policymaker to visit since the disaster, which has affected up to 20 million people.

Zardari visited Sukkur in the densely populated southern province of Sindh Thursday and was briefed about the damage and relief effort in Sindh.

The president has defended his decision not to cut short his overseas tour, saying he used talks in London and Paris to drum up much-needed aid, and told flood victims that the government was doing all it could.

But his visit to Sindh was criticised by the main opposition party Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz as too little, too late.

"He is president of Pakistan and he should behave like a president," party spokesman Siddiqul Farooq said.

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.

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 rife 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, has begun 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.

After touring flood-hit areas with diplomats, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said late Thursday: "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.

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