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UN chief examines Pakistan floods

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said the flooding in Pakistan is the worst disaster he has ever seen as he urged foreign donors to speed up assistance to the 20 million people affected.

His comments reflect the concern of the international community about the unfolding disaster in Pakistan, which is battling al Qaida and Taliban militants, has a weak and unpopular government, and a weak economy propped up by international assistance.

"This has been a heart-wrenching day for me," the UN chief said after flying over the hard-hit areas with Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari. "I will never forget the destruction and suffering I have witnessed today. In the past I have witnessed many natural disasters around the world, but nothing like this."

The floods began more than two weeks ago in the mountainous north-west and have now hit about one-quarter of the country, especially its agricultural heartland. While the death toll of 1,500 is relatively small, the scale of the flooding and number of people whose lives have been disrupted is staggering.

The world body has appealed for an initial 460 million US dollars (£295m) to provide relief, but only 20% has been given.

Once the floods recede, billions more will be needed for reconstruction and getting people back to work in the already-poor nation of 170 million people. The International Monetary Fund has warned the floods could dent economic growth and fuel inflation.

"Waves of flood must be met with waves of support from the world," said the UN chief. "I'm here to urge the world to step up assistance."

President Zardari has been criticised for his response to the disaster, especially for going ahead with a state visit to Europe just as the crisis was unfolding. Zardari has visited victims twice since returning, but images of him at a family-owned chateau while in France are likely to hurt him for months to come.

In his first comments to the media since returning, he defended the government.

"The government has responded very responsibly," he said, saying the army, the police, the navy and officials were all working to relieve the suffering. "I would appeal to the press to understand the magnitude of the disaster."

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