Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari was in Britain Wednesday amid rows over London’s claim that Islamabad promoted the “export of terror” and his failure to return home after devasting floods.
Zardari, who arrived in Britain on Tuesday, will hold talks with British Prime Minister David Cameron on Friday and explain “face to face” his anger over Cameron’s comment that Pakistan must not “look both ways” on violent extremism.
But Zardari is facing growing pressure to go back to Pakistan and lead the country’s response to the worst floods in living memory in northwest and central areas which have killed up to 1,500 people and hit over three million. Pakistan is holding an emergency cabinet meeting on Wednesday in a bid to speed up relief work following the floods which washed away villages and ruined farmland in one of its poorest and volatile regions.
The country’s main opposition leader Nawaz Sharif said on a visit to reporters in Charsadda, one of the worst affected areas, that Pakistanis had been “let down very badly by Mr Zardari”.
“The government has failed to perform its duty in the crisis. They should have used all their resources to help the flood victims,” he added.
Imran Khan, the country’s former cricket captain turned opposition politician, said Zardari should be in Pakistan following the disaster. “Any talks can be postponed — surely the priority should be your own people,” he told ITV television. “And then to go on this lavish tour — this money could be used on the victims.”
Zardari’s visit to Europe — which started in France, where he met President Nicolas Sarkozy and visited his family’s rural stately home — is not due to end until after a rally in Britain Saturday when he will reportedly launch the political career of his son, who has been studying at Oxford University.
The trip was labelled a “joy ride” by one flood survivor, and a number of British lawmakers of Pakistani origin have pulled out of a planned lunch with Zardari Thursday. “For him to spend tens of thousands of pounds on the launch of his son’s political career at a time when his country needs him shows that he’s out of touch and his advisors are ill-informed,” one of them, Lord Nazir Ahmed of the main opposition Labour Party, told AFP. “Quite frankly, staying in five-star hotels with his huge entourage, tens of big cars that have been hired just to give him this protocol in London, it’s quite outrageous.”
There was also an angry reception late Tuesday for Zardari when he arrived at his hotel in central London, where protesters accused him of wasting money on the visit that would be better spent helping those affected by the floods. Officials have defended the cost of Zardari’s trip, issuing a statement insisting he was staying in the “cheapest five-star hotel in London” and was avoiding the royal suite in favour of a “relatively cheaper” one.
Zardari is still expected to meet members of Cameron’s government Thursday, thought to include Home Secretary Theresa May, Education Secretary Michael Gove and Minister Without Portfolio Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, Britain’s first female Muslim cabinet minister. Relations between London and Islamabad soured after Cameron said last week: “We cannot tolerate in any sense the idea that this country is allowed to look both ways and is able, in any way, to promote the export of terror.”
The comments have sparked fury in Pakistan and in an interview with French daily Le Monde Tuesday, Zardari warned that coalition forces were “losing the war against the Taliban” in Afghanistan. He added: “The war against terrorism must unite us and not oppose us”. Cameron later rejected the idea that international forces in Afghanistan were “losing the battle of hearts and minds” in a BBC radio interview. He also said that Britain’s relationship with Afghanistan could “survive speaking frankly about problems”.