Militants armed with guns and grenades stormed the offices of a US-based Christian charity in Pakistan on Wednesday, killing six aid workers in an attack blamed on Islamist rebels.
The gunmen stormed the World Vision building near the town of Oghi in the Mansehra district of North West Frontier Province (NWFP), where Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked militants have waged a deadly campaign.
The aid group condemned the attack as “brutal and senseless”, and indefinitely suspended all of World Vision?s operations in Pakistan, where it has about 300 staff.
World Vision said six Pakistani employees, including two women, were killed and seven others wounded when up to 15 gunmen arrived in pick-up vehicles and began firing on the aid workers.
“They gathered all of us in one room. The gunmen, some of whom had their faces covered, also snatched our mobile phones,” said World Vision administration officer Mohammad Sajid, who was in the office at the time.
“They dragged people one by one and shifted to an adjacent room and shot and killed them… After that one of them said: ‘It is enough, we should leave now’. While leaving they lobbed grenades.”
Rienk van Velzen, World Vision’s regional communications director, told AFP by telephone from the Netherlands that all staff in the office were Pakistani.
“We have four male and two female staff members killed,” he said.
The organisation has operated in the area since October 2005, when aid workers flooded into the northwest after a 7.6-magnitude earthquake killed more than 73,000 people and left about 3.5 million homeless.
But many charities have left the area, as Islamist violence has soared. In February 2008, four aid workers with British-based group Plan International were killed in a similar gun and grenade attack in Mansehra town.
Police officials said the militants on Wednesday opened fire and detonated hand grenades at the site near Oghi, about 80 kilometres (50 miles) north of Islamabad, before disappearing into the mountains.
“Police rushed to the area after receiving information about the attack, but the attackers managed to flee,” senior police officer Waqar Ahmed told AFP.
Ahmed blamed the attack on “the same people who are destroying our schools” — a reference to Taliban militants opposed to co-education who have blown up hundreds of schools across the northwest in the past three years.
A wave of suicide and bomb attacks across Pakistan has killed more than 3,000 people since 2007. Blame has fallen on Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked militants bitterly opposed to the country’s alliance with the United States.
But Azam Tariq, a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, said he was unaware of Wednesday’s attack, telling AFP by telephone: “I have no knowledge about the incident and would not like to offer any comment.”
World Vision’s website describes the group as “a Christian relief, development and advocacy organisation” founded by a US reverend.
It says the aid group is “inspired by our Christian values”, but stresses that the organisation does not proselytise or condition aid on faith.
The United Nations decided last year to relocate a limited number of its international staff from Pakistan because of security concerns.
The UN’s World Food Programme office in Islamabad was attacked last October, with five workers killed in a suicide bombing.
On February 3, a bomb attack in NWFP killed three American soldiers and five other people at the opening of a school just rebuilt with Western funding after an Islamist attack.
In talks in Islamabad with Hamid Karzai, the president of neighbouring Afghanistan, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari on Wednesday called for a “Marshall Plan” to banish Taliban militancy from the two countries for good.
Afghanistan and Pakistan should “stand together and persuade the international community to devise a Marshall Plan for the region to banish the militancy and its effects for all time to come,” Zardari said, referring to the US initiative launched in 1947 to rebuild western Europe after World War II.
The United States has tripled non-military aid to Pakistan to 7.5 billion dollars over the next five years as it tries to help stabilise the country. It also operates a covert drone war against militants in the northwest of Pakistan.
Two US missile strikes on Wednesday killed at least 12 militants in the tribal region of North Waziristan, officials said.