NOWSHERA, Pakistan (Reuters) - Islamist charities, some with suspected ties to militants, stepped in on Monday to provide aid for Pakistanis hit by the worst flooding in memory, piling pressure on a government criticized for its response to the disaster that has so far killed more than 1,000 people.
The floods that ravaged the northwest and displaced more than a million people are testing an administration heavily dependent on foreign aid and which has a poor record in crisis management — whether fighting Taliban insurgents or easing chronic power cuts.
Islamist charities believed to have ties with militants may gain support if their relief efforts pay off, as they did after a 2005 earthquake in Kashmir killed 75,000 people.
“We have lost everything. We only managed to save our lives. Nobody has come to us,” said Mihrajuddin Khan, a school teacher in Swat Valley. “We are being treated like orphans, animals.”
Rescuers are struggling to distribute relief to tens of thousands of people trapped in submerged areas where destroyed roads and bridges make access difficult.
Many in the path of the floods scrambled to save their livestock. One man swam across heavy currents with his chicken tied around his neck. In one town, there were more than 100 bloated buffalo carcasses, raising the specter of disease.
Islamabad may look to Western countries, who want it to do more to tackle Pakistan-based militants who attack NATO forces in Afghanistan, for financial support to ease the crisis.
The U.S. embassy announced $10 million in immediate humanitarian aid, with more to be earmarked as necessary. The European Union will donate 30 million euros.
Salman Shahid, spokesman for the Falah-i-Insaniat Foundation (Foundation for the Welfare of Humanity), said the Islamist group had set up 13 relief and six medical camps, and a dozen ambulances were providing emergency treatment. Several other Islamist groups are also helping out with the relief effort.
Falah-i-Insaniat is believed to have ties to Jamaat-ud-Dawa charity, which the U.N. Security Council banned last December for its alleged links with Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the group blamed for the 2008 attack on the Indian city of Mumbai.
“We’re very much there. We’re the only group that is providing cooked food to trapped people and those laying on the roadside,” Shahid told Reuters from the group’s headquarters in Lahore. “Our volunteers are evacuating people.”
Some analysts expressed doubts that Islamist groups and their militant wings could capitalize on the disaster because army offensives have weakened them.
Others said the Islamists’ camps had set a dangerous precedent.
“It is very likely that they will exploit the governance vacuum, in the wake of this tragedy, to fuel their own recruitment,” said columnist Huma Yusuf.
A similar dynamic happened after the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, she said, when extremist groups gained immense popularity from their relief efforts. Pakistan is fighting insurgents from al Qaeda and homegrown Taliban in the northwest.
Authorities are expecting the death toll to rise, as more of the heavy monsoon rains lashing the area for the past week are forecast. Pakistan’s National Disaster Management Authority said more than 29,500 houses were damaged and a key trade highway to China was blocked by flooding.
“Our main challenge of getting a clearer picture is access,” said Nicki Bennett, senior humanitarian officer at United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Officials said it was too early to estimate the damage the floods had caused to the economy, but the rains had so far spared the main agricultural heartland in the Punjab.
“The entire infrastructure we built in the last 50 years has been destroyed,” said Adnan Khan, spokesman for the provincial Disaster Management Authority in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
The disaster management authority said tents and hygiene kits had been delivered. Helicopters and boats have been dispatched.
But analysts say the government really lacks the resources to take on a disaster of this scale, leaving the military in charge.
More than 30,000 Pakistani troops have rescued some 19,000 people from marooned areas so far. Some army bases used to strike at militants in Nowshera, some 100 km (60 miles) northwest of the capital Islamabad, have been flooded.
The government’s failure to help victims reinforced the long-held view that Pakistan’s civilian authorities are ineffective, leaving the military to act at troubled times.
The government of President Asif Ali Zardari has limited control over the military. It has also been relatively ineffective in tackling corruption and reforming the economy.
“What we have seen is their almost total paralysis and they have not been able to mobilize the resources,” said Riffat Hussein, a defense expert at Quaid-e-Azam University.
Highlighting growing frustrations, farmer Ghulam Hussain said: “You can imagine how much they’re concerned about us when the president leaves for London (for a state visit), even though people are dying and hundreds of thousands are homeless.”
Additional reporting by Adrees Latif, Kamran Haider, Augustine Anthony and Shiza Shahid in ISLAMABAD; Sahar Ahmed in KARACHI; Junaid Khan in MINGORA; Asim Tanveer in LAYYAH; Writing by Michael Georgy, Editing by Chris Allbritton and Nick Macfie