(CHANGING 2ND AND 3RD PARAGRAPH TO INCLUDE LATEST COMMENTS FROM WORLD VISION)
By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife with BosNewslife Special Correspondent Xavier P. William reporting from Pakistan
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN (BosNewsLife)– The US-based Christian charity World Vision said Wednesday, March 10, it has suspended operations in Pakistan after militants stormed its offices, killing six staff members and injuring several others.
“We have confirmed that the gunmen entered our office compound, threw grenades, opened fire on staff inside the office, and left the compound after exploding a homemade bomb. The compound is located about 40 miles (65 kilometers) north of Mansehra town,” World Vision said in a statement monitored by BosNewsLife.
In addition to those killed, “eight employees were hospitalized with injuries. Four of them were released from the hospital, while another four remain hospitalized in critical-but-stable condition,” the group added.
World Vision said “no threatening letters were received prior to the attack”, which was believed to have been carried out by Islamic fighters with ties to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda groups.
The gunmen besieged the World Vision building near Oghi town in Mansehra district of North West Frontier Province (NWFP), where Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked militants have been waging a deadly campaign of attacks.
Police and World Vision said two women were among those killed when up to 15 gunmen, who arrived in pick-up vehicles, began firing on the aid workers.
“They gathered all of us in one room. The gunmen, some of whom had their faces covered, also snatched our mobile phones,” added World Vision administration officer Mohammad Sajid, who was apparently in the office at the time.
“They dragged people one by one and shifted to an adjacent room and shot and killed them,” he told reporters.
There was no immediate known claim of responsibility for the violence.
World Vision said all victims were Pakistani citizens.
It warned that the incident would impact its relief operations among impoverished people, including earth quake victims. “All of World Vision’s operations in the country have been temporarily suspended. World Vision remembers those staff who have died as dedicated people seeking to improve the lives of people affected by poverty and disasters.”
Since 1992, World Vision primarily focused on relief interventions in Pakistan. The work expanded in 2001, when the organization began collaborating with other aid groups in NWFP and Punjab Province with what it described as”emergency relief assistance and community development” initiatives. “After a devastating October 2005 earthquake, World Vision expanded its operations in Pakistan.”
In a statement to supporters, World Vision asked to “Please pray for World Vision’s staff members in Pakistan and the friends and loved ones of those who were attacked” as well as “God’s protection” on its workers, so that relief efforts”can continue soon.”
However several relief groups have left the area, as Islamist violence soars. In February 2008, four aid workers with the British-based group Plan International were killed in a similar gun and grenade attack in Mansehra town.
A wave of suicide and bomb attacks across Pakistan has killed more than 3,000 people since 2007, including Christians. Last year saw the “worst persecution” of Christians in a decade with at least 130 known killingsacross the country, according to the independent Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS).
The United Nations decided last year to relocate a limited number of its international staff from Pakistanbecause of security concerns. The UN’s World Food Program office in Islamabad was reportedly attacked in October last year, with five aidworkers killed in a suicide bombing.
Then on February 3, a bomb attack in the NWFP district of Lower Dir killed three American soldiers and five other people at the opening of a school just rebuilt with Western funding after an Islamist attack.
Elsewhere in the northwest of Pakistan Wednesday, March 10, police found the bodies of two men the Taliban had accusedof spying for the United States, news reports said.
The local tribesmen had been taken last month from Mir Ali in North Waziristan tribal region, and their “bullet-riddled bodies were found dumped under a bridge,” police officer Dildar Khan told media.
It was unclear when and if World Vision, one of the largest relief and development organizations, would be able to continue working in the area amid the spreading violence.
World Vision was founded in 1950 by Robert Pierce (“Bob”), a young pastor and evangelical missionary, who had first been sent to China and South Korea in 1947 by the Youth for Christ missionary organization.
Pierce remained at the head of World Vision for nearly two decades, but resigned from the organization in 1967. He also founded the evangelical organization Samaritan’s Purse, now led by Franklin Graham, the son of American evangelist Billy Graham.