Aid groups demand protection following Swabi attack

PESHAWAR: Aid groups Wednesday demanded greater protection in Pakistan amid concerns of a new spike in violence after seven charity workers were shot dead and their organisation suspended operations.

The six women — five of them teachers and one a health visitor — and a male health technician were ambushed by gunmen on motorbikes on Tuesday as they were returning from a community center in Swabi.

They were buried on Wednesday. A four-year-old boy was spared when the gunmen removed him from the same vehicle before spraying it with gunfire, police said.

The attack — which has not been claimed — adds to fears that charity workers are increasingly vulnerable, particularly in the northwest which is badly affected by Taliban and al Qaeda-linked violence.

The charity, Support With Working Solution, has temporarily suspended its operations, police told AFP.

“The NGO has suspended its activities for three days to mourn the deaths. They will decide after three days whether to start work again or not,” said Abdul Rashid Khan, the police chief of Swabi.

The organisation runs dozens of health and education projects, including polio vaccinations, in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Health and education programmes, particularly those for girls, are seen as being at particular risk.

A United Nations spokesman said Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was “appalled” by the killings.

“His view is that it is difficult to understand what motivates people to carry out such terrible acts against people who are helping their own people and especially children,” the spokesman said.

Last month, nine polio vaccine workers were shot dead in a string of incidents, forcing UN agencies to suspend an immunisation campaign, and there are now concerns about a record number of deaths from measles in the south.

On Wednesday, an umbrella organisation of around 200 charities in the northwest demanded better protection, but vowed to continue working in order not to encourage “those who are opposed to progress”.

“We have to stand up and foil the nefarious designs of anti-state elements who are bent upon destroying the fabric of civil society. We all have to strengthen our voice otherwise we will perish,” said the Pakhtunkhwa Civil Society Network.

It demanded government protection for charity workers “vulnerable to the menace of terrorism” but some charity workers express doubt about government capacity.

On December 22, Bashir Bilour, a senior minister in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and eight others were killed in a suicide attack on a political meeting claimed by the Taliban.

“How can a state protect its people if it can’t protect its ministers?” asked Imran Takkar, programme manager of the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child.

Islamabad says more than 35,000 people have been killed as a result of terrorism in the country since the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

Imtiaz Iltaf, police chief of Peshawar, said officers were preparing a strategy to protect aid workers.

“We are in a state of war. The whole country is facing an insurgency, so we are revising the present security steps and working on a new strategy,” he said.

Source: AFP