Victims fling themselves at flood-relief helicopters
1,600 dead, 13 million affected, now Pakistan fears a further deluge
People desperate to get out of flooded villages in Pakistan threw themselves at helicopters yesterday, as more heavy rain was expected to intensify both their suffering and popular anger with the government.
President Asif Ali Zardari may have made the biggest political mistake of his career by departing for visits to Paris and London during his country's worst floods in 80 years.
More than 1,600 people have been killed and 13 million affected, most of them in the north-west of the country, the main battleground in the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
In the town of Muzaffargarh, army helicopters dropped packets of rice to people who had moved to higher ground. Some latched on to helicopter skids as the aircraft took off and one elderly man fought his way inside one. He looked down and wept.
More rain soaked the flood-ravaged country yesterday and even heavier downpours were forecast, deepening a crisis in which hard-line Islamists have rushed to fill gaps in the government's patchy response.
Mass evacuations are under way in the southern province of Sindh after the Indus River rose there.
The intense flooding that began about two weeks ago has washed away roads, bridges and many communication lines, hampering rescue efforts. Incessant monsoon rains have grounded many helicopters trying to rescue people and ferry aid, including six choppers manned by US troops on loan from Afghanistan.
Floodwaters receded somewhat yesterday in the north-west, but downpours again swelled rivers and streams.
Pakistani meteorologist Farooq Dar said heavy rains in Afghanistan were expected to make things even worse over the next 36 hours, as the bloated Kabul River surged into Pakistan's north-west.
That will likely mean more woes for Punjab and Sindh provinces as well, as new river torrents flow east and south.
Authorities have given varying tolls for the number of people, among Pakistan's population of 175 million, affected by the floods.
The United Nations said 4 million people had been affected, including 1.5 million severely, meaning their homes were damaged or destroyed. But Pakistani officials have put the figure much higher.
In the north-west and Punjab, floods have displaced 12 million people, said Amal Masud, an official with the National Disaster Management Authority.
In Sindh province, about 1 million people have been evacuated or are being helped out of their homes, said Jam Saifullah, the provincial irrigation minister.
One witness saw many people walking and using trucks to migrate to safer places in Sindh. Some refused to leave their lands and homes. "Let the flood come. We will live and die here," said Dur Mohammed, 75, from his mud-brick home in Dadli village. Mohammed is one of 250 people in Dadli resisting evacuation, as they fear their homes will be a target for thieves .
The United Nations said the disaster was "on a par" with the 2005 Kashmir earthquake - that killed about 73,000 people -- in terms of the numbers of people needing assistance and damage to infrastructure.
Some 30,000 Pakistani soldiers are rebuilding bridges, delivering food and setting up relief camps in the north-west. Foreign countries and the United Nations have donated millions of euro.