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Pakistan orders Save the Children foreign workers to leave

Aid group is accused of being used as cover for US spies while they were hunting for Osama bin Laden

Pakistan has given foreigners working for Save the Children a week to quit the country after becoming convinced the aid organisation was used as cover by US spies hunting Osama bin Laden.

The leading aid group had been under suspicion from authorities ever since a doctor accused of assisting the CIA in its search for the al-Qaida leader claimed that Save the Children had introduced him to US intelligence officers.

But now Pakistani officials claim they have “concrete proof” backing up the story of Shakil Afridi, the doctor from the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan who confessed to the ISI, the country’s military spy agency, after being arrested last year.

Although both Save the Children and the US government have always denied any relationship between the CIA and the aid organisation, Pakistani officials say they are fully justified in expelling the few foreign staff still working in the country.

The six foreigners will have to leave by next Wednesday. The former country director, David Wright, left on Monday.

A Pakistani intelligence official said evidence had been found showing “spies” at the NGO had “engaged” Afridi, who is currently serving a 33-year jail term.

“Pakistan carried out a thorough investigation involving all our leading agencies,” he said. “It was one of the longest investigations in our history.”

“It is a very serious matter and the foreign staff were asked to leave only after concrete proof was uncovered.”

The expulsions come despite lobbying by western diplomats on behalf of Save the Children, which has been working in impoverished areas of the country for decades, including during the devastating 2010 floods when it assisted more than 3 million people. Diplomats have argued that the organisation had no involvement with the CIA, but have stopped short of denying that intelligence officers may have used Save the Children as a front.

The CIA imposes some restrictions on itself over what cover its agents can use in the field. It is not known whether limits are placed on the use of foreign NGOs.

Members of the foreign aid community fear the claim that a leading NGO became entangled – even unwittingly – in the activities of the CIA could endanger staff and affect operations around the world.

Critics say the widely publicised story has already affected efforts to encourage parents to vaccinate their children against polio, the devastating disease that Pakistan is struggling to eradicate.

Many Pakistanis were deeply suspicious of outside doctors coming to their areas even before Afridi, who used to run anti-polio campaigns, became publicly associated with the CIA.

Save the Children recently restructured, merging previously autonomous branches run from the US, the UK and Sweden. The new organisation has been in protracted negotiations with the government about its future, with Pakistan so far refusing to sign an agreement formalising its operations in the country.

The organisation’s trouble began after Afridi was arrested in the aftermath of the US raid on 2 May last year that killed Osama bin Laden.

Afridi is accused of setting up a bogus hepatitis B vaccination campaign in the area to try to pinpoint bin Laden’s exact location.

Pakistani officials say blood samples, which it had been hoped would be collected from people living in the Abbottabad house where the terrorist leader was thought to be hiding, were to be tested by the CIA for genetic matches to bin Laden.

Although Afridi never succeeded in persuading the occupants of the crowded building to give blood, his collaboration with a foreign intelligence service is regarded as an act of treason by Pakistan’s security establishment.

Foreigners working in the country, including diplomats and aid workers, have been under intense suspicion ever since.

Embassies and aid groups have complained of harassment, tight restrictions on the movement of their staff and acute difficulty obtaining visas.

The operations of Save the Children were particularly badly hit.

A spokesman said it was still “urgently seeking clarification” over a letter it received from the Interior Ministry ordering staff out of the country.

“Like many other NGOs in Pakistan, there have been ongoing problems with documentation over the last 15 months,” he said.

“However, Save the Children in Pakistan employs just six expatriates out of a workforce of almost 2,000 people. We will continue with our daily work helping millions of children across Pakistan. We have been operating in the country for the last 30 years and currently support 7 million people – the vast majority women and children.”

Source: Guardian News

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