Extremist groups step up to aid flood victims

NOWSHERA, Pakistan — Amid wide complaints about an inadequate government response, private charities — including some linked to Islamic extremists — are stepping in to help victims of the worst flooding in Pakistan in decades, which has claimed some 1,500 lives.

Northwest Pakistan, the area worst hit by floods since last week, is also the region most affected by religious militancy and the threat of a takeover by the Pakistani Taliban. One of the deluged areas is the Swat Valley, which the army had to wrest back from Taliban control in a major offensive last year.

The United Nations said that about 1 million people are homeless and 80,000 homes were destroyed in four northwestern districts it surveyed.

Floodwaters ripped down bridges, washed away crops and swallowed roads. Save the Children, an international charity, said Monday that it was using donkeys to transport aid to some areas that were cut off.

The flood surge is following the course of the Indus river, which runs through the middle of Pakistan. The floodwaters are now moving south and threaten more destruction in Punjab and Sindh provinces.

The government and military say they have mounted a full-scale relief effort, but many local residents in the Nowshera district, which appears to have suffered the most, said the only help they'd seen from the state was the military airlifting stranded people from rooftops.

The flooding followed torrential rains that brought many times the annual monsoon deluge. According to the United Nations, the floods are the worst since 1929 and water levels in the Indus are reported to be their highest in more than a century.

In Pir Pia village, in Nowshera district, there was no sign Monday of government assistance. Four schools in the village had been turned into makeshift camps by a local charity to shelter those made homeless.

Hard-line religious groups have jumped into the void to provide aid. Among the Islamic groups handing out aid to the flood victims is Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the organization that's widely considered a front for Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is blamed for the 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai, India. JuD often uses other names to disguise its presence.

"The JuD flags were flying; they didn't bother hiding it," said one aid worker, who'd been with the group working near the town of Charsadda and asked not to be identified for fear of his own safety.