The grisly murder of a Red Cross worker and a video showing a US hostage pleading for his life highlight a perilous security situation in Pakistan that aid groups say is endangering their work.
Humanitarian organizations are reviewing operations in Pakistan after the killing of Khalil Dale, whose decapitated body was found on April 29, four months after he was abducted in Quetta, the capital of the southwestern province of Baluchistan.
The murder of the 60-year-old British convert to Islam sent shockwaves through the aid community, particularly as his employer, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), has a reputation for neutrality that allows it to work safely even in the most hostile situations.
Aid groups spend millions of US dollars on helping millions of Pakistanis, yet attacks on their staff are increasing, according to the Pakistan Humanitarian Forum (PHF), which represents nearly 50 international organizations.
Since 2009, at least 19 aid workers have been murdered and more than 20 abducted across Pakistan by militants and criminals, the forum said.
“This trend of increased targeting of humanitarian aid organizations and personnel will further impede the ability of humanitarian agencies to provide life-saving and life-enhancing support to the most vulnerable population,” the forum said.
According to the forum, at the end of last year there were more than 200 foreigners and 10,000 locals working in Pakistan for international aid organizations under its aegis.
The ICRC is not part of the forum.
On Sunday a video emerged of kidnapped US development worker Warren Weinstein urging US President Barack Obama to agree to his abductors’ demands.
The 70-year-old was snatched after gunmen tricked their way into his Lahore home in August last year and Pakistani officials believe he is being held by al-Qaeda and Taliban extremists in Pakistan’s lawless northwest.
The kidnapping of Weinstein in Lahore, and an Italian and German in Multan — both cities previously regarded as relatively safe — has further rattled the nerves of non-government organizations (NGO).
“We have really tightened up our security. For Islamabad our security guy says the risk is still low, but kidnappings are increasing and from places like Multan — we never would have expected that,” an official with one major Western aid group said.
Many in the aid community have been deeply critical of the CIA’s decision to run a fake vaccination program in a bid to identify former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in the run up to his killing in May last year, saying the link with espionage had endangered aid workers.
Pakistan arrested the doctor recruited by the CIA to run the program, but bin Laden’s death in Pakistan ignited a wave of restrictions on foreigners across the country, limiting their movements and restricting visas.
A staff member with another international NGO said that although most aid workers accepted that a certain level of danger was part of the job, the ICRC’s reputation made the Dale case all the more shocking.
Senior ICRC officials from Geneva traveled to Pakistan after Dale’s murder to meet authorities and review the organization’s presence in the country.
A few days before Dale’s abduction, the ICRC had already said it was planning to scale back its presence in Pakistan.