WRAPUP 5-Pakistani president returns home to flood crisis

* Zardari faces brunt of criticism

* Economic growth target to be missed

* Helicopter flights resume in some areas (Adds details on U.S. assistance, paragraph 14)

SUKKUR, Pakistan, Aug 10 (Reuters) - Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari returned home on Tuesday from foreign visits to a chorus of criticism over his government’s response to the country’s worst flooding in 80 years.

The floods, triggered by unusually heavy monsoon rain over the upper Indus river basin that started nearly two weeks ago, have ploughed a swathe of destruction more than 1,000 km (600 miles) long from northern Pakistan to the south, killing more than 1,600 people.

The weather cleared in some areas allowing helicopters, including U.S. aircraft, to resume flights to help more than 13 million people -- about 8 percent of the population -- whose lives have been disrupted by the floods, including two million homeless.

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Zardari, the widower of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and whose rule has been mired in controversy, enraged his critics by going ahead with visits to meet leaders in Britain and France as the catastrophe was unfolding.

The military has taken the lead in relief efforts while the government is under fire for a perceived sluggish response.

While the crisis has reinforced the faith Pakistanis have in the ability of their military, analysts say the armed forces would not try to take over the country, as they have vowed to stay out of politics and are busy fighting militants.

“The president has returned and he is in Karachi. He will come to Islamabad,” said Zardari’s spokesman, Farhatullah Babar.

A government official said Zardari was expected to visit flood-hit areas within days, but for many Pakistanis, his trip is too little, too late.

“All that I can say about Zardari is that our houses are collapsing and his government is not even bothered,” said Daraz Gul, a market salesman in the town of Nowshera in the northwest.

“A government is supposed to be like a parent. If a parent leaves his children in trouble and goes on jaunts abroad, it is scandalous.”

Dozens of protesters in the southern town of Sukkur in Sindh accused politicians of ignoring flood victims. “They want to save their own lands and factories. They don’t care if Sukkur is drowned,” said cloth merchant Salahuddin Ahmed.


Zardari has been a ceremonial president since parliament adopted constitutional changes stripping him of his powers this year, and the government, led by his party, said it was dealing with the floods and the issue should not be politicised.

U.S. officials are concerned about the damage caused by the weak government response to the floods and mounting hostility toward Zardari. Pakistan is a key U.S. ally whose help Washington needs to end a nine-year Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.

The Pentagon said U.S. military helicopters in Pakistan had flown 2,305 people to safety and had airlifted some 211,000 pounds (95,708 kilos) of relief supplies for victims.

The U.N. secretary-general’s special envoy for assistance to Pakistan, Jean-Maurice Ripert, said the disaster was the biggest the country had ever faced and would cost billions of dollars.

“We know that the area affected and the scale of the disaster are such that hundreds of millions of dollars will be needed to address urgent humanitarian needs and billions of dollars will be required for rehabilitation and reconstruction of infrastructure and livelihoods,” he told a news conference.

The International Monetary Fund has warned of major economic harm and the Finance Ministry said the country would miss this year’s 4.5 percent gross domestic product growth target though it was not clear by how much.

Pakistani stocks fell 1.34 percent to end at a more than one-month at 9,892.32 points as investors worried about the costs. The index slid 2.8 percent on Monday.

Families are trapped on patches of land with a few belongings and livestock surrounded by water. Farmers desperate to save their cattle walk neck-deep in water pulling them along.

The World Health Organisation has warned of disease spreading with some cases of acute watery diarrhoea.

Helicopter flights resumed to the Swat valley northwest of Islamabad, which has been cut off by landslides, after rain grounded flights for two days.

“We are here to help, I hope Pakistanis understand that,” said Kelly Steckler, a crew member on board a U.S. Marines Black Hawk helicopter that flew in with relief goods.

Flooding has also hit India, killing 156 people in the Himalayan region of Ladakh. About 300 people are missing there. (Additional reporting by Zeeshan Haider, Augustine Anthony and Kamran Haider in ISLAMABAD, Phil Stewart in Washington; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Robert Birsel and Sanjeev Miglani)