MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan – President Gen. Pervez Musharraf suspended a major purchase of U.S. fighter planes, saying Friday during a tour of this devastated city that funds are needed first and foremost for earthquake recovery.
The president – who has been criticized for refusing to cut the nation’s military budget in light of the disaster – called on the world to send more money, saying the response to the killer quake has fallen far short of that for last year’s tsunami or Hurricane Katrina.
Musharraf said he was delaying the purchase of 77 F-16 fighters because of the need for rebuilding large swaths of northern Pakistan flattened by the Oct. 8 earthquake, which killed about 80,000 people.
Analysts estimate the planes’ cost at between $5 billion and $10 billion, a steep tab for a nation struggling to provide basic education and health care to its people under the best of circumstances.
“We want to bring maximum relief and reconstruction efforts,” Musharraf said of the F-16 purchase. He did not say when the sale would go through.
The planes have become a symbol of Pakistan’s improving relations with the United States after years in the political wilderness. Washington blocked the sale in the 1990s as punishment for Pakistan’s nuclear program, but reversed its position after intense lobbying by Musharraf and approved the sale in March.
Musharraf also urged the world to be as generous with long-term help for quake victims as it was with Asia’s tsunami last December and Hurricane Katrina in August.
“When we are talking of the bigger issue of reconstruction and rehabilitation which is now to come, there we expect the equal amount of assistance (that the) tsunami and Katrina got,” he said.
He suggested later in a British Broadcasting Corp. interview that the world had forgotten quake victims largely because there were no Westerners among them.
“I would say the damage here is much more (than the tsunami), the magnitude of the calamity here is much more,” Musharraf said.
The South Asia quake left more than 3 million homeless, most in the Kashmir region claimed by Pakistan and India, though the Pakistan side was harder hit. The Dec. 26 tsunami left fewer homeless – a half-million – but had a larger death toll, at nearly 179,000 killed and 50,000 others missing.
Donors pledged $13.5 billion in aid after the tsunami. For quake victims, the United Nations says it needs $550 million in emergency aid, but donors have pledged only $131 million.