Seven aid workers including five female teachers were shot dead on their way home from a community centre today in the latest attack highlighting the dangers confronting women working in Pakistan.
The humanitarian staff were ambushed by gunmen who stopped a van taking them home. The gunmen reportedly ordered a child who was in the van to get out, and then sprayed the vehicle with automatic gunfire. The driver was seriously injured.
The attack in Swabi district followed a series of killings by the Taliban last month of female volunteers involved in an anti-polio vaccination drive.
It also had echoes of the attack in October on 15-year-old Malala Yousufzai, who had campaigned for girls’ education in the Swat valley and who was shot by Taliban gunmen as she made her way home from school. Malala is still undergoing treatment in Birmingham after she was flown to Britain for long-term care. She is due to undergo cranial reconstruction later this month.
Yesterday’s attack took place about 40 miles from Islamabad in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, a stronghold of the Pakistani Taliban. By last night there had been no claim of responsibility, but suspicion will fall on the Taliban, which has been responsible for a series of attacks on women working in the fields of education and human rights.
“This is the Taliban’s tactics. I think they are trying to send out a message,” said Talat Masood, an Islamabad-based political analyst and a former general. “They are opposed to education for women; they are opposed to the empowerment of women. I think this is more or less what happened to Malala.”
Reports said the five teachers, and a male and a female health worker, were attacked as they made their way home from a community centre close to a main highway. All reportedly worked for a local charity, Support With Working Solutions. The organisation had been providing education and maternal health care in Swabi and other districts in north-west Pakistan.
Abdul Rashid Khan, the Swabi police chief, told Agence France Presse that the women were aged between 20 and 35 and that their male colleague was 52. “Four men came on two motorbikes. They attacked their van, a Toyota. They opened fire to the right and left of the van and fled,” he said. “Six women and a man have died. The driver is injured.”
As to those responsible for the attack, which took place close to a junction for the motorway which connects Peshawar with the eastern city of Lahore, Mr Khan said the police’s investigation was still under way. He added: “A wave of terrorism is continuing in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, so we are investigating whether it’s a part of the same wave or there were any other motives.”
The attack underscored the risks faced by educators and aid workers, especially women, in an area where Islamic militants often target women and girls trying to get an education. In the past, many schools have been blown up or forced to shut.
In December gunmen killed nine health workers taking part in a national polio vaccination drive in a series of attacks. The Taliban said it did not carry out those attacks although Taliban leaders have repeatedly denounced the vaccination programme as a US-backed plot to sterilise people or spy on Muslims. The killings prompted the UN children’s agency and the World Health Organisation to suspend work on polio campaigns in the country.
Also yesterday a bomb exploded in a crowded area of Karachi, the southern port city, killing two people and wounding 50 others. Karachi has been plagued in the past by both militant and gang violence.