NGOs close down operations after four die in Mansehra attack

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Mansehra, about 80km north of Islamabad, have suspended their work, wary of a potential security threat after an attack on the office of the UK-based Plan International left four dead.

On 25 February about 12 armed gunmen burst into the office of the NGO, which has been engaged in relief work in Pakistan for 10 years.

Since the devastating earthquake of October 2005, which killed over 75,000 and rendered millions homeless, Plan International, which works mainly with children, has undertaken school building projects, rehabilitation work and other projects aimed at uplifting communities.

The gunmen opened fire on staff, killing four, including three Pakistani staff members. Another two were badly hurt and remain in hospital.

Hand grenades were then flung inside the offices, triggering a fire that destroyed records and equipment and left bodies badly charred.

"I am just shocked," Mia Haglund Heelas, the country director of Plan International said. She had just visited injured staff members at a Mansehra hospital.

The NGO has closed down offices across Pakistan, with Tom Miller, International Plan's UK-based chief executive officer, saying in a brief statement: "Our primary concern is for staff and families of those hurt in the attack. We have immediately closed our operations across Pakistan and have dispatched a security team".

But the sense of shock and outrage goes beyond the offices of Plan.

Speaking to IRIN, Dorothy Blane of Concern, an Irish organisation working in areas that include post-quake relief, said: "It has affected all work, at least temporarily. But questions about why this attack happened and who was behind it, whether Plan was just hit due to bad luck or other factors, are still to be answered. That will decide what happens now”.

Concern too has shut offices, though Blane remained optimistic. "International NGOs are supported by Pakistan's Earthquake Relief and Rehabilitation Authority (ERRA) and they will back us. We will definitely re-open," she said.

Worsening security

The attack has come amidst a worsening security environment in Mansehra.

For the last two years, threats have been directed against NGOs and their staff, particularly women. It is assumed local militant religious leaders are behind such warnings, sometimes backed by edicts that have been displayed on town walls.

"It is because nothing was done to penalise those behind those threats that this attack has taken place," I.A. Rehman, director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), said. "All NGOs working for uplift and for women's rights face a threat."

On 26 February Mansehra District Police Officer Mazharul Haq Kakakhail advised foreign NGO staff to be "careful" and avoid going to the field without police cover.

The security environment has in the past led to international organisations cutting back on operations across the North West Frontier Province and also in parts of Balochistan. The latest incident, it is feared, will result in greater loss of confidence and could affect the operations of other groups.

"NGOs here need to be proactive in security arrangements. They shouldn't assume they are safe because they have been working here for a long time," Chris Cork, a Pakistan-based NGO management analyst, told IRIN.