India offers Pakistan US$20m in flood aid

Goodwill gesture apart from the $5m sent through the UN as peace activists in both countries lobby for allowing Indian doctors to join relief efforts.

ISLAMABAD // India offered US$20 million (Dh73m) more in humanitarian assistance to Pakistan yesterday, as peace activists in both countries lobbied their governments to allow Indian doctors to join flood relief efforts. "As a more concrete assessment of the damage inflicted by this natural disaster and the urgent needs of the people of Pakistan emerges, the government has decided to increase its assistance to Pakistan," SM Krishna, the Indian foreign minister, told India's parliament yesterday.

The offer is in addition to $5m accepted by Pakistan last week, although a foreign office spokesman said on Saturday the money should be paid into a United Nations fund instead of being accepted directly. Pakistan took direct financial aid from India after a massive earthquake in October 2005, when peace negotiations between the two countries had been progressing. Peace activists said the Indian offers of aid would create goodwill, but doubted it would have any effect on relations with Pakistan.

"They are not sufficient to pave the way for bilateral dialogue," said AH Nayyar, president of the Pakistan Peace Coalition, a Karachi-based nongovernmental organisation. Relations between the countries have been strained since the 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai. India has blamed the attacks on the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), an anti-India militant organisation based near Lahore. The Lahore high court last year acquitted Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, founder of the LeT and head of its charitable offshoot, the Jama'at-ud-Dawah (JuD), of involvement in the attacks.

An anti-terrorist court in Rawalpindi, hearing charges against seven other suspects, on Monday turned down a bail application by Zaki ur Rehman Lakhvi, operations chief of the JuD and suspected mastermind of the Mumbai attacks. India has repeatedly complained about the lack of progress in the cases, which damaged talks between the foreign ministers of both countries in July. The Indian aid offer yesterday follows lobbying by the Balusa Group, a group of retired ranking officials from both countries that pursues backdoor diplomacy, peace activists said yesterday.

The group issued a statement on August 22 calling on India to increase aid, particularly medicines, to Pakistan. "At this time of crisis, the governments of the two countries must co-operate with each other in bringing help to the afflicted. They must rise above the doubts and suspicions that have kept us apart for so long," the group had said in a statement, co-signed by Salman Haider, a former Indian foreign secretary, and Mahmud Ali Durrani, a former Pakistani national security adviser and military intelligence chief.

Peace activists said yesterday they were lobbying the governments to permit a mission of Indian doctors to join relief efforts. "If the two governments are truly sincere in co-operation, they would allow the relief team to travel across the border," Mr Nayyar said. Given the security situation in Pakistan, it was "very courageous" of Indian doctors to have volunteered, he added. However, peace activists in India said yesterday the doctors were having second thoughts because of the danger in Pakistan.

They cited a US warning last week that militants were planning attacks on foreign relief workers, and reports that Rajiv Shah, administrator of the US Agency for International Development (USAid), had inadvertently toured a relief camp in southern Sindh province that was being run by the Falah-e-Insaniyat Foundation. The foundation is the charitable face of LeT, after the United Nations banned the JuD in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks.

"There have been disturbing developments that are making them rethink. This is certainly not going to help," said Mazher Hussain, the executive director of the Confederation of Voluntary Associations (Cova), an Indian non-governmental organisation. Cova had petitioned Indian medical associations for volunteer doctors, and is working with the Pakistan Peace Coalition to secure authorisation for them to join relief efforts.

The Indian activists also referred to Indian media reports that Mr Shah, an American of Indian heritage, was threatened by the foundation's aid workers, although the USAid chief has made no such allegations. The Indian press has also carried reports that Pakistan has barred relief workers from India and Israel, they said. A spokesman for the United Nations in Islamabad said yesterday the world body had received no such information from the Pakistani government. * Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse