The international aid community was last night mulling its future in Pakistan's troubled north-west after a "heinous bomb attack" struck a hotel and killed at least nine people, including two foreign humanitarian workers.
The UN said that all but a skeleton staff had been immediately withdrawn from the frontier city of Peshawar while a full security assessment was carried out following the militant attack on the Pearl Continental hotel. Some non-government organisations imposed a ban on travel to the city. Officials said the opportunity to safely carry out humanitarian work in Pakistan was getting "constantly squeezed".
The release of CCTV footage from the hotel showing a security barrier being lowered moments before militants drove two vehicles into the forecourt and detonated the bomb have prompted claims that the attackers received "inside help".
"A vehicle cannot get in without some hotel employee's help," said Bashir Bilour, a provincial minister.
The 1,000lb bomb devastated part of the hotel on Tuesday night, one of the few establishments in the city that caters for foreign guests and where about two dozen had been staying.
The UN said five of its staff had died, including a Serbian, Aleksandar Vorkapic, who was working for the refugee agency UNHCR, and Perseveranda So, from the Philippines, who was overseeing a girls' education project for Unicef. Three Pakistani staff were killed and four more were among 65 people wounded.
One Briton, Gordon Brown, was among the injured. Doctors said the bodies of two other foreign aid workers had been brought to the hospital.
"Humanitarian workers around the world are coming under increasing attack and it is the poor, the uprooted and the vulnerable who will suffer the most by their loss," said the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres. "We are forced to ask ourselves, how we can meet their urgent needs while ensuring the safety of our own humanitarian staff?"
A UNHCR spokesman said most UN staff were being withdrawn to Islamabad. Other aid groups said they were assessing the situation. Oxfam said travel to Peshawar had been halted while Save the Children said foreign staff were already restricted from spending the night in the city.
The country is in the midst of its biggest humanitarian crisis since independence as a result of the military operation to force the Taliban out of the Swat valley – at least 2.5 million people have fled their homes. Any reduction in the aid community's operation could have a drastic effect.
In an unrelated development, nine aid groups in Pakistan said yesterday they were suffering a £26m shortfall.
The CCTV footage from the hotel showed a cyclist speaking to a security guard, who returned to his cabin. As the cyclist pedalled through, a barrier across the driveway was lowered. A car pulled into the entrance, briefly stopped and then sped towards the hotel, followed by a truck. Another guard ran for cover as shots were fired and moments later there was a flash.
One part of the hotel looks as if it had been bombed from the air. At the spot where the bomber's car stopped, there was a hole 15ft deep, into which the vehicle had disappeared.