SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari has defended his decision to travel abroad while the country battled the worst floods in decades, saying he had helped focus international attention on the plight of the victims.
Zardari has faced the brunt of public anger as the administration struggles to help an estimated 14 million people hit by the floods, compounding the misery of a nation tackling a deadly Islamist militancy and a failing economy.
But in an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal, the embattled widower of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto said he had used his trip to France and Britain to mobilize foreign assistance, money and food for the flood victims.
"Some have criticized my decision, saying it represented aloofness, but I felt that I had to choose substance over symbolism," he said.
The British government had pledged $24 million in aid, following his meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron, the Pakistani leader said. He had also been in touch with the U.S. government, which had promised $35 million in relief funds.
The floods triggered by heavy monsoon rain over the upper reaches of the Indus river basin have plowed a swathe of destruction more than 1,000 km (600 miles) long from northern Pakistan to the southern province of Sindh. More than 1,600 people have died.
The United Nations says the disaster is the biggest the country has ever faced and it would cost billions of dollars to rehabilitate the victims and rebuild ruined infrastructure.
"As I return to Pakistan, I bring back tangible results that will help the flood victims in the short run and lay the foundations for national recovery in the long run," Zardari said. "I might have benefited personally from the political symbolism of being in the country at the time of natural disaster. But hungry people can't eat symbols. The situation demanded action, and I acted to mobilize the world."
Even before the floods struck, Zardari's approval ratings had been falling. Only one in five Pakistanis viewed him positively, a poll by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center released late last month showed.
His prime rival, ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif, had a 71 percent favorability rating, according to the poll.
Reporting by Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Nick Macfie