PESHAWAR: Unidentified gunmen suspected to be Taliban kidnapped four polio contractors hired by the Unicef in South Waziristan Agency (SWA) late Monday and released them early Tuesday.
Senior government officials and tribal sources told this correspondent that the Unicef contractors were working in South Waziristan to set up roadside polio vaccination points when armed men bundled them into a car and drove away.
Two senior Taliban commanders of the Maulvi Nazeer group in Wana said they had already warned the health department and officials associated with the polio immunisation programme to stop their activities in the tribal region after the ban on polio vaccines. But they didn’t confirm if the Taliban were behind the kidnapping of the four Unicef contractors.
Government officials said the situation was still not in favour of polio immunisation in most parts of South Waziristan.
“It is beyond understanding as to why the Unicef doesn’t take the Taliban warning seriously and is endangering the lives of the vaccinators by sending them to South Waziristan to carry out the anti-polio drive,” a government official based in Wana, the headquarters of South Waziristan, said. Dr Mohammad Rafiq, who headsUnicef’s polio programme in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), confirmed the development and said the kidnapped contractors were released on Wednesday morning and the issue had been resolved.
When contacted, Unicef media focal person for polio eradication in Pakistan, Michael Coleman also confirmed the development, but could not defend Unicef’s decision to continue its operations in South Waziristan despite the ban on running the anti-polio campaign by the local Taliban.
The Fata Secretariat recently cancelled the “no objection certificate” of two Unicef partners when CHIP (Civil Society Human & Institutional Development Programme) and National Research and Development Foundation (NRDF) were asked to immediately stop all activities until the office of the corps commander issued an NOC to them.
The anti-polio programme in the province has received a blow after it was reported that Dr Shakeel Afridi had helped the CIA to track down al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden at his hideout in Abbottabad on May 2, 2011.
The Pakistani Taliban operating in South and North Waziristan tribal regions, led by Maulvi Nazeer and Hafiz Gul Bahadur, respectively, banned polio immunisation campaign in their respective areas in June last as a mark of protest against US drone attacks and warned members of the health department to stop their activities.
“We suspect the anti-polio campaign would be used as a ploy by the CIA to do what they achieved through Dr Shakeel Afridi,” said a leaflet distributed by the Taliban in Wana in June.
Besides Fata, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has also witnessed increase in the number of refusal cases as many parents were unwilling to get children vaccinated against polio after the Dr Shakeel Afridi episode. “Some 19,500 refusal cases were recorded during the last anti-polio campaign whereas the number stood at 11,000 in the beginning of the year,” disclosed an official of the Expanded Programme on Immunisation (EPI) in Peshawar.
The official, pleading anonymity, said the media campaign recently launched by the Unicef to clear misconception about the polio drops could not produce the desired results owing to the similarity between the names of Dr Shakeel Afridi and cricketer Shahid Afridi, who was engaged to dispel the fallacies about polio drops.