Floods in Pakistan spur criticism as over 400 die

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 wracked 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 special 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 perception 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 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 roadway. "We are looking to Allah to help."

Provincial information minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain 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 on 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.