US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta confirms fake polio drive, while thanking Dr Shakil Afridi to facilitate the implementation of the campaign. -File Photo

ISLAMABAD: An alliance of about 200 US-based NGOs, many of them working in humanitarian operations in Pakistan, has expressed deep concern over a vaccination campaign carried out in Abbottabad last year by the Central Intelligence Agency and expressed fear that the action may jeopardise the lives of aid workers in the country. The president of the InterAction alliance, in a letter written to CIA Director Gen David Petraeus, registered serious objections to the vaccination campaign launched to collect intelligence about Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.

The letter said the CIA should avoid tactics that “erode the ability of humanitarian actors in Pakistan and the rest of the world to work on behalf of the poorest and most vulnerable”.

The fact that the CIA had launched such fake campaigns was confirmed by US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta in an interview on Jan 27 where he praised a doctor named Shakil Afridi for helping the agency. Dr Afridi is in custody of Pakistani security agencies for launching the fake polio vaccination campaign and tipping the US government about Osama.

“The CIA’s use of cover of humanitarian activity for this purpose casts doubt on intentions and integrity of all humanitarian actors in Pakistan, thereby undermining the international humanitarian community’s efforts to eradicate polio, provide critical health services and extend life-saving assistance during times of crisis like the floods seen in Pakistan over the past two years,” InterAction chief Samuel A. Worthington said.

The ChildFund International, Mercy Corps, World Wild Fund, Plan USA, Helen Keller International, Action Against Hunger US and Relief International are among key members of InterAction.

Mr Worthington noted that since reports of the CIA campaign surfaced last summer, “we have seen continued erosion of US NGOs’ ability to deliver critical humanitarian programmes in Pakistan and an uptick in targeted violence against humanitarian workers. I fear CIA’s activities in Pakistan and the perception that US NGOs have ties with intelligence efforts may have contributed to these alarming developments”.

“Distrust of the US government runs high in parts of Pakistan and NGOs must take great care to avoid overt association with the US government. The CIA-led immunisation campaign compromises the perception of US NGOs as independent actors focused on a common good and casts suspicion on their humanitarian workers.”

The group said there had been increased surveillance by Pakistani intelligence entities and expressed fear that they would soon face a much more restrictive and invasive bureaucratic framework governing their operations.

Mr Worthington demanded that “independent, impartial humanitarian action be kept clearly distinct from intelligence-gathering activities.”

“Any blurring of the two risks causing setbacks in decades-long global health and humanitarian efforts and endangers the lives of those working to make those advances on behalf of the global community.”

Talking to Dawn, Save the Children NGO’s country director David Wright said: “Our ability to continue this important work has been seriously undermined by CIA’s use of humanitarian activity as a cover for their intelligence gathering.”

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