By Griff Witte and Haq Nawaz Khan
Saturday, July 31, 2010; A06
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- The Pakistani government stepped up relief efforts Friday for the hundreds of thousands of people affected by the worst flooding in decades to hit the country's northwest, an area already racked by extremist violence.
While unusually heavy monsoon rains have inflicted damage across the country this week, northwestern Pakistan has borne the brunt of the destruction, with the death toll there climbing Friday to at least 408, provincial officials said.
The government's response has come under scrutiny because the impoverished northwest has been the scene of persistent militant attacks and frequent U.S.-backed army offensives in recent years. The Taliban, which is active across the region, has fed on the widespread view that the government is ineffective and unable to meet basic needs.
The government sought to counter that perception Friday, with the army launching dozens of helicopters to rescue stranded villagers and with civilian authorities dispatching flood-control officials to prevent critical dams from bursting.
But criticism of the government's efforts had already begun, with washed-out roads, collapsed communications systems and a lack of rescue vehicles all hampering the response.
"We have no government at all to help us at this critical hour," said Riaz Ahmad, 38, as he waited by the side of a flooded road. "We are looking to Allah to help."
Mian Iftikhar Hussain, information minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, said Friday that the government was "doing its level best." But, he said, "at times we are all helpless against natural disasters."
Hussain, an outspoken Taliban critic whose only son was killed by militants last week, had conceded Thursday that "the infrastructure of this province was already destroyed by terrorism. Whatever was left was finished off by these floods." He pleaded for outside assistance, asking for tents, food and boats. He also warned that the death toll could significantly rise, with thousands of people still unaccounted for.
The U.S. Embassy in Islamabad announced that it would provide Pakistan with seven helicopters to assist with rescue efforts and that it would offer additional assistance in the coming days.
Across the northwest, homes and bridges tumbled into the surging river waters. Rains triggered landslides that wiped out whole communities, and lightning killed dozens. Images broadcast on local television stations showed residents desperately swimming for shore through snake-infested waters.
Alamzeb Khan, a 42-year-old farmer, described a scene in which hundreds stood on the shore and helplessly watched old men, women and children float by in the raging current. There was no sign of a government rescue effort, he said.
A Pakistani military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Azmat Ali, said that troops had been deployed to every major affected area and had rescued thousands of people. Nearly all the soldiers in the Swat Valley, which was retaken from the Taliban after a major offensive last year, had been temporarily assigned to flood relief duty, he said. The valley was among the areas inundated by water, as swollen rivers jumped their banks and tore through adjacent towns and villages.
Ali said the emergency response efforts would be "of a very short duration" and would not detract from the military's anti-Taliban operations. Authorities were hopeful Friday that the waters would soon start to recede.
Still, many residents had little time to waste. "We are pleading for the government to take our families out of the floodwater," said Adil Khan, who was stranded with relatives near the northwestern city of Peshawar. "We don't want food or anything else -- just take us to a safer place."
The flooding follows the crash of a Pakistani commercial jet Wednesday, an accident in which the weather is thought to have played a role. The crash of the Air Blue flight into the Margalla Hills on the outskirts of Islamabad left 152 people dead in the worst aviation disaster in Pakistan's history.
Khan, a special correspondent, reported from Peshawar.