ISLAMABAD: Gunmen have shot dead five health workers in Pakistan at the start of a polio vaccination drive, in a spree of apparently co-ordinated attacks on the nationwide medical campaign.
Officials were forced to halt the three-day vaccination programme in Karachi after four women were shot dead in the city in less than an hour.
The assassinations follow a Taliban ban on immunisations in the tribal region of Waziristan. The militants say the ban is in protest against drone strikes and also allege that the immunisation campaign is a cover for spying.
Victim ... Rukhsana Bibi, right, grieves for her daughter, polio worker Madiha Bibi, who was shot dead in Karachi. Photo: Reuters
The four women were killed a day after a man working on a World Health Organisation project was shot and wounded in the city, police told reporters.
A fifth worker, a 17-year-old girl, was killed on Tuesday in the north-western city of Peshawar. A police commander in Karachi, Shahid Hayat, blamed "militants who issued a fatwa against polio vaccination in the past" for the shootings. "They were fired upon by unidentified gunmen who rode away on motorcycles," he said.
Government health officials have warned that 250,000 children are at risk from polio in Waziristan if the vaccinations are not carried out.
Taliban militants allege the program is a cover for espionage, pointing to the CIA's use of a hepatitis campaign during the hunt for Osama bin Laden. A Pakistani doctor used the ruse in an attempt to extract blood from children living in Abbottabad at the suspected home of the al-Qaeda leader in order to check whether it matched the DNA of bin Laden family members.
It was not immediately clear if all the attacks on Tuesday were linked to the vaccination campaign.
Matthew Coleman, a spokesman for the United Nations Children's Fund, said some had occurred in areas notorious for gun crime, but said the situation was worrying. "We're concerned for the safety of front-line workers. They are the true heroes," he said.
An ambitious vaccination program has reduced polio infections from 350,000 cases in 1988 to 650 last year, according to World Health Organisation figures. The disease was endemic in 125 countries in 1988, but has been confined to Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.