KABUL (Reuters) - Militants kidnapped 11 Pakistani teachers involved in a polio vaccination campaign for school children on Saturday, officials said, the latest in a string of attacks on health workers trying to eradicate the deadly disease.
The teachers were taken from the private Hira Public School in the Bara area of the Khyber tribal agency, one of the semi autonomous tribal areas along border with the Afghanistan. The gunmen arrived just after teams administering the polio vaccines had left, officials said.
Local official Khyali Gul said the gunmen took the teachers to an area controlled by militant leader Mangal Bagh and his Taliban-affiliated Lashkar-e-Islam group.
“Mangal Bagh and his men are opposing polio vaccination for children and don’t allow teams to immunize children in their areas,” Gul said.
Another Khyber official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the teachers had been taken to an area where security forces cannot enter due to presence of militants. It was expected they would be released following negotiations with local elders, the official said.
Gunmen frequently attack polio vaccination workers in Pakistan. Militants accuse them of being Western spies or part of a plot to sterilize Muslims. One militant leader said he would only allow vaccinations in his area if U.S. drone strikes stopped.
A global eradication campaign has reduced polio cases by 99.9 percent in the last three decades, but it remains endemic in Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
There were just 223 cases last year, according to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, but as long as the disease remains in pockets it can reinfect countries previously cleared.
The disease is highly infectious and can cause irreversible paralysis.
In southern Pakistan, six people were killed and 52 wounded when the Taliban bombed a predominantly Shi‘ite neighborhood in the southern city of Karachi, said deputy inspector general of police Javed Odho.
Taliban spokesman Shahid Shahidullah said the attack was in retaliation for sectarian violence in the city of Rawalpindi a week ago. Eight Sunni seminary students were killed in clashes with Shi‘ites.
“We are planning massive attacks against Shi‘ite community, because they are the enemies of Islam,” Shahidullah said.
“We are sure the relatives of the dead students from Rawalpindi Madrassa will get revenge from the blood of the Shi‘ites.”
Shi‘ites make up about 20 percent of Pakistan’s 180 million people. In recent years, violence against them has increased as Sunni extremists seek to drive them out of the country.
Shi‘ite neighborhoods have been attacked with truck bombs and children have been shot on their way to school.
Additional reporting by Saud Mehsud in Dera Ismail Khan and Mehreen Zahra-Malik in Islamabad; Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Dylan Welch and Jeremy Laurence