|Family members comforted a woman who had lost her house to heavy flooding in Sukkar, Pakistan. (Pervez Masih/Associated Press)|
MUZAFFARGARH, Pakistan — President Asif Ali Zardari returned yesterday to flood-ravaged Pakistan, where he faced harsh criticism for visiting Europe as his country was gripped by what his government called the nation’s worst natural disaster.
His arrival came as thousands fled a major city in central Pakistan threatened by swollen rivers, and as the United Nations said the nationwide aid response needed to be scaled up “massively.’’ The world body said it is working on a response plan that will probably require hundreds of millions of dollars in initial international assistance.
The Pakistani Taliban, which is allied to Al Qaeda and is fighting for the overthrow of the Pakistani state, urged the government not to accept any Western aid for flood relief. Spokesman Azam Tariq said the group would fund relief efforts.
The Taliban have attacked Western aid groups in Pakistan and called for them to leave the country, saying they are trying to implement a Western agenda. “Pakistan should reject this aid to maintain sovereignty and independence,’’ Tariq said in a telephone call to an Associated Press reporter.
The UN, relying on Pakistani figures, said the number of people affected by flooding over the past two weeks is 13.8 million — more than the combined total of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, and the 2010 Haiti earthquake, although the death toll in each of those disasters was much higher than the 1,500 people killed in the floods.
The widespread crisis has overwhelmed the government and frustrated citizens who have complained about slow or nonexistent aid efforts. A person is considered “affected’’ by the floods if he or she will need some form of assistance to recover.