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Islamic Militants Targeting Aid Groups In Pakistan

KATHY GANNON   03/18/08 03:19 PM ET   AP

Pakistan Aid Groups Targeted

MANSEHRA, Pakistan — Long-haired gunmen burst into the white stone building and killed four charity workers helping earthquake victims, then wrecked the office with grenades and set it on fire. Police came, but did not intervene.

In a tactic reminiscent of neighboring Afghanistan, Islamic militants are attacking aid groups in the Pakistan's volatile northwest, and local authorities appear incapable _ or unwilling _ to stop them.

The threat has forced several foreign agencies to scale back assistance to survivors of the October 2005 earthquake that killed at least 78,000 people and left 3 million homeless _ risking the region's recovery from the worst natural disaster in the country's history.

The Feb. 25 attack on employees of Plan International, a British-based charity that focuses on helping children, was the worst in a series of threats and assaults on aid workers in the northern mountains where Taliban-style militants have expanded their reach in the past year.

Nearly a month later, menacing letters are still being sent to aid organizations. Although all four victims in Mansehra were Pakistani men, Islamic extremists despise the aid groups because they employ women and work for women's rights.

Local officials in Mansehra, who spoke on condition they not be identified for fear of retaliation, said letters from extremists distributed March 13 and 14 also warned schools to make sure girls are covered from head to toe and to avoid coeducation.

The militants also may be trying to discredit Pakistan's central government, and to enforce a radical religious agenda in a conservative region where jihadist-linked groups were themselves a source of aid after the quake.

Police accuse a local militant, Mohiuddin Shakir, who goes by the alias Mujahid, of masterminding the attack last month on the aid office in Mansehra. He has not been arrested.

Shakir, a former member of an al-Qaida-linked group, has criminal charges against him in Pakistan dating back to 2002, including for murder, according to police records obtained by The Associated Press.

Shakir now leads a jihadist group called Lashkar-e-Ababeel, named after small birds that the Quran says threw stones to defeat an army of 60,000 warriors who sought to destroy Mecca in the 7th century.

Last summer, Shakir wrote a letter to newspapers warning international aid groups about hiring women and warning women to wear an all-encompassing veil.

Yet Abdul Ershad, an officer investigating the attack, said that as recently as late 2007, Shakir had a working arrangement with police in his hometown of Phulra not far from Mansehra. To advance his agenda, he would tell police about residents involved in "un-Islamic" activities _ like men selling pornographic videos and socializing with women _ and police would arrest them, Ershad said.

Brig. Waqas Iqbal Raja, the chief security official for the Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Agency, acknowledged a growing presence of extremists in the quake zone, including some militants displaced by an army offensive against supporters of a pro-Taliban cleric in neighboring Swat district.

Tribal elders have promised to help protect aid workers, and Raja said he has advised the workers to keep a low profile and stay off the roads at night.

He could not explain why Shakir was still at large.

"I wouldn't want to comment why he is still free. But there were definitely some lapses in police procedure and protection," Raja said.

Distrustful residents did not alert police when six or seven militants with long hair and their faces hidden behind scarves descended in broad daylight on the Plan International compound. The militants ordered the security guard to leave.

Sajjad Mahmood, a clerk working next door, said police arrived after 30 minutes and just stood outside the gate while the assailants were inside. When the gunmen emerged, police did not try to stop them, he said.

"Everyone is scared," said Naeem Awan, whose nearby hair salon had its windows blown out by the force of grenades lobbed by the militants. "They can open fire and attack people and get away. How is it possible?"

Since the attack, aid organizations have withdrawn their female field workers. Authorities are asking them to move their offices into a gated community in Mansehra with its own police post.

Despite the additional security, officials of three international aid groups said they wanted to keep working but felt they could not rely on local police for protection. The officials requested anonymity because they did not want to risk problems by publicly criticizing Pakistani authorities.

Women employees say they fear for their safety.

"It was a real act of brutality and you feel very worried, and still there is no real arrangements from the police for security," said Aneela Tobassam, a Pakistani worker for U.S.-based Mercy Corps who provides vocational training to women. Even inside her office, Tobassam, an ethnic Pashtun, wears a large shawl covering her head.

"I don't feel safe outside right now, but I won't leave. I will stay here and I will do my work even if for now it is inside the office," she said.

The intimidation of aid groups has increased in recent months. They have received anonymous threats, and last October two attacks in nearby Battagram district forced a temporary suspension of relief operations.

There was a bombing outside the office of a local charity, Strengthening Participatory Organization, which wounded eight people. Attackers also sprayed the compound of CARE International with automatic gunfire, but no one was hurt.

Fear that militants are targeting foreigners and their organizations increased over the weekend when a bomb killed a Turkish woman at a restaurant popular with foreigners in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad. Twelve other people were wounded, including four Americans.

The quake-hit region, next to Pakistan's part of disputed Kashmir, has long been a haven for militant groups with links to the Pakistani military and intelligence service. The groups have waged a 20-year insurgency in India's portion of Kashmir, a predominantly Muslim region.

The extremist-linked group Jamaat-e-Dawa, a successor to the banned Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, was among the first to help quake victims after the disaster and worked closely with the Pakistan military. It and banned groups like Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen set up medical camps alongside an extensive, and widely welcomed, international relief effort.

Graham Strong, country director for U.S.-based World Vision, which heads an umbrella group of 20 international aid organizations operating in Pakistan, voiced concern that aid workers here will face the same problem as in Afghanistan.

During nearly four years working there, Strong saw the ability of charities to work dwindle due to lawlessness, government incompetence and Taliban assaults that police failed to stop.

"I hope we are not going down the same road here," Strong said in Islamabad. "We are generally concerned that things might be changing."

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Filed by Nick Graham  |