ISLAMABAD- The Red Cross on Thursday suspended most of its aid projects in Pakistan and recalled foreign staff to the capital, following the brutal murder of a British worker.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it had suspended activities run from the southern port city of Karachi and the northwestern city of Peshawar, while it reviewed its operations after the killing of Khalil Dale.
The move puts on hold activities at all facilities run by ICRC apart from a physical rehabilitation centre in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
“The recent attack against the ICRC compels us to completely reassess the balance between the humanitarian impact of our activities and the risks faced by our staff,” said Jacques de Maio, ICRC’s head of operations for South Asia.
The mutilated body of 60-year-old health worker Dale was found outside Quetta, the capital of the insurgency-plagued southwest province of Baluchistan, on April 29, nearly four months after he was abducted.
Aid bodies spend millions of dollars helping millions of Pakistanis, yet attacks on their staff are increasing, according to the Pakistan Humanitarian Forum (PHF), which represents nearly 50 international organisations.
Since 2009, at least 19 aid workers have been murdered and more than 20 abducted across Pakistan by militants and criminals, according to the PHF, to which the ICRC does not belong.
Elderly US development worker Warren Weinstein was snatched after gunmen tricked their way into his Lahore home in August last year, and on Sunday a video emerged of him urging President Barack Obama to save his life by agreeing to his abductors’ demands.
The kidnapping of Weinstein in Lahore, and an Italian and a German in Multan — both cities previously regarded as relatively safe — has further rattled NGO nerves.
ICRC froze its activities in Quetta in the aftermath of Dale’s death, said the aid group, which had about 100 foreign staff in Pakistan at the end of 2011.
“We are currently analysing the situation and the environment with a view to setting out a clear and sustainable way forward,” said Paul Castella, head of the ICRC delegation in Pakistan.
“In the coming weeks, the ICRC will announce a decision on its future presence and set-up in Pakistan.”
Some of the expatriate staff recalled to Islamabad will work on the review process, while the majority of local staff in Karachi, Quetta and Peshawar will go on paid leave, ICRC said.
Despite Thursday’s announcement, ICRC said it would continue to offer remote support to centres it runs in cooperation with local organisations, including a physical rehabilitation centre in Peshawar.
Aid workers with different organisations have complained of friction with the authorities and in January the ICRC closed five offices in Pakistan, including one in Lahore, citing “difficulties in accessing certain areas and populations”.
ICRC, headquartered in Geneva, has been working in Pakistan since 1947 and last year almost 12,000 people were treated at its 120-bed hospital for weapons injuries in Peshawar and three clinics it supports in Quetta.
More than 400,000 people visited 14 health clinics backed by the ICRC in Pakistan’s violent and impoverished northwest, including the tribal belt on the Afghan border.