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Maj. Gen. Nadir Zeb, the region’s army commander, said many people had ignored flood warnings and only realized the danger of the situation when water entered their cities, towns and villages.

“They risked their lives, but we are reaching them,” he said.

In the northwest, which has not seen such flooding since 1929, rescue workers have struggled to deliver aid because of washed-out bridges and roads. Manuel Bessler, the U.N.’s humanitarian chief in Pakistan, said that at least 4.2 million people were affected and that the potential for waterborne diseases was worrisome.

“We are facing a disaster of major proportions,” Mr. Bessler told reporters in Geneva by telephone. “Even a week after the disaster, we don’t have all the details. Roads are washed away. Bridges are destroyed. Whole areas are completely isolated and only accessible by air.”

Many flood victims have complained that aid is not reaching them fast enough or at all

President Zardari, ever fearful of militant threats, rarely makes public appearances even when he is in Pakistan.

A few months ago, he agreed to constitutional reforms that transferred many of his presidential powers to the prime minister, leaving him more of a figurehead.

Still, victims and rival politicians have pounded Mr. Zardari for his trip overseas.

“In the face of such calamity, the people need to feel that their leaders are standing by them,” said an editorial in the News, a newspaper that makes no secret of its dislike of the president.

Zardari aide Farahnaz Ispahani said the president was thinking of Pakistan’s long-term future in tackling the diplomatic front. Mr. Zardari’s schedule includes a meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron, who recently caused a fury in Pakistan by accusing it of exporting terror.

“The government must continue its business so that the nation moves forward,” Mr. Ispahani said. “This may not play to the galleries, but everything cannot come to a standstill when there is a disaster, especially in a parliamentary democracy with a prime minister and Cabinet in place.”

Associated Press writers Khalid Tanveer in Kot Addu, Pakistan; Zarar Khan in Islamabad, Pakistan, and Bradley S. Klapper in Geneva contributed to this report.