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Pakistan floods: Pakistani Taliban threats don’t deter foreign aid workers

LAHORE, Pakistan — International aid organizations here appear unfazed by the Pakistani Taliban’s declaration that their presence in the flood-hit country is “unacceptable.”

 “It’s not affecting our activities – we’re continuing our operations normally and in fact we’re increasing our response to the flood disaster,” says James Nichols, a spokesman for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which is providing medical care, clean water, and hygiene kits throughout Pakistan.

On Thursday, Pakistani Taliban spokesman Azam Tariq told the Associated Press that “no relief” is reaching the affected people and termed the presence of foreign aid workers “unacceptable.”

 “When we say something is unacceptable to us, one can draw his own conclusion,” he added.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said that the US government is in possession of threat information. “It is a real threat,” he said.

For the aid organizations, meanwhile, it appears to be business as usual in what is at the best of times a “high-security context,” according to Mr. Nichols. He believes that the MSF’s independence and impartiality will afford the organization’s staff – of whom some 110 are foreign and 1,200 are Pakistani – a degree of protection.

Lars Oberhaus, the Punjab head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, says: “For us in general, we at the ICRC, we pursue a strictly independent and humanitarian approach. We ourselves are not too worried.” But, he adds, “There is always the risk of confusion, when there is a blurring of military and humanitarian action,” he says, citing the aid that must be distributed by military helicopters in hard-to-access areas.

Aid workers will continue their efforts in the face of threats, UN spokesman Maurizio Giuliano said, adding that any attack on humanitarians at this time is an attack on the people of Pakistan.

There is some precedent for militants striking out at foreign aid organizations and charities. In March, masked gunmen stormed the offices of World Vision, a Christian charity in northwest Pakistan, killing six Pakistani staffers.

But such incidents are isolated, and attacking aid organizations at this time could harm the Taliban’s own interests, says Amir Rana, an expert on militancy and head of the Islamabad based Pakistani Institute for Peace Studies.

“They didn’t strike during the 2005 earthquake, despite the fact that at that time they weren’t countering a military operation and NATO troops were present in Kashmir,” he says.

He continues: “They are already suffering a lot and their popularity among the masses is decreasing. If they try to [attack aid workers] they will find themselves more isolated.”

Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the Pakistan Army spokesman, told the Monitor that while some 60,000 troops are committed to flood relief efforts, the Army remains vigilant to counter the threat of the Taliban. “In Swat and many of the affected areas in the north-west, they are looking two ways,” he says.

More than 17 million people have been affected by the floods and about 1.2 million homes destroyed.

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