GENEVA (Reuters) - The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said on Tuesday it was halting most of its aid programs in Pakistan due to deteriorating security and the beheading of a British staff doctor in April blamed on Taliban insurgents.
The independent agency, which had already suspended operations in three of Pakistan’s four provinces in May pending a security assessment, said it would carry on working in the country “but on a reduced scale”.
“All relief and protection activities are being stopped. All projects of rehabilitation, economic projects, have been terminated,” said Jacques de Maio, head of ICRC operations in South Asia, on one of the organization’s blog.
“We have closed a number of offices. We are also terminating all visits to detainees in Pakistan,” he added.
The agency, which rarely suspends its operations even in war zones, has worked in the country since the end of British colonial rule in 1947.
It was providing mainly health services and physical rehabilitation for victims of violence and natural disasters, many of whom have lost limbs.
The ICRC said it would focus on treating patients wounded in fighting and aimed to reopen a surgical field hospital in Peshawar. It has been closed since the murder of staff member Khalil Rasjed Dale, abducted by suspected militants in January.
The beheaded body of Dale, who ran a health program in the southwestern city of Quetta in the Baluchistan province, was found on April 29.
De Maio said the plan was for Peshawar hospital to be its “flagship” operation in the country ... “unless we determine in the next few weeks that the prerequisites are not fulfilled and therefore the conditions are not met for us to redeploy”.
ICRC offices in Sindh province, where flood recovery work is now complete, and in Quetta are being closed, the agency said.
In 2011, Pakistan was one of the largest ICRC operations in the world. The delegation employed 1,300 staff who assisted hundreds of thousands of people.
“We are ready to continue helping people in need, such as the wounded and the physically disabled, provided working conditions for our staff are adequate,” Paul Castella, head of the ICRC delegation in Islamabad, said in Tuesday’s statement.
Dale was the third Westerner to be beheaded by militants in Pakistan. The others include Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002 and Piotr Stanczak, a Polish geologist, in 2009.
A senior police officer said when Dale’s body was recovered that the Pakistan Taliban had claimed responsibility for the killing, saying a ransom had not been paid.
The Pakistan Taliban have been fighting a bloody insurgency against the Pakistani state since the group was formed 2007. It is close to al Qaeda and it claimed credit for a failed car bomb attempt in New York’s Times Square in May 2010.
Pro-Taliban militants are also active in Baluchistan, which shares borders with Afghanistan and Iran.
Pakistan is an increasingly dangerous environment for aid workers.
Gunmen in Pakistan shot and wounded a staff member of the World Health Organization and an expatriate consultant working for the United Nations health agency in July.
A month earlier, a Pakistani militant group threatened action against anyone conducting polio vaccinations in the region where it is based, saying the health care drive was a cover for U.S. spies.
Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Andrew Heavens